The Turkish government made a critical statement last week on the Syrian crisis. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made it known that Turkey, along with its allies, is considering the option of creating a buffer zone within Syria.
The final decision is to be made at the upcoming meeting about Syria in April. With this statement, Turkey gave the strongest signal yet of its direct involvement in the Syrian crisis. This should be taken as the most decisive official statement so far from Ankara to display that Turkey is serious about resolving the crisis in Syria and is amenable to a more concrete strategy on Syria, albeit somehow a unilateral one, in the sense that it is proceeding without a UN Security Council (UNSC) mandate.
A buffer zone, by nature, entails the limiting of the affected state’s (in this case, Syria’s) sovereignty on its own territory. A buffer zone is necessarily supported by air and land forces. The critical factor is the international legal mechanism that legitimizes a buffer zone. A buffer zone created without a UNSC resolution is, in this case, the ideal solution, given the inability of the UNSC to proceed on the Syrian crisis in face of the failure to secure all P5 members’ endorsement of this body’s draft resolution on the subject. The less sound solution, given the evidence of its aftermath in Libya, is the NATO-led one. Nonetheless, for many states, a buffer zone created by the unilateral action of several states will be problematic. For example, last week, the Indian ambassador to Ankara told me that her country will not be endorsing any intervention that is without a UN mandate.
The “return” of Vladimir Putin might be important. Unlike many other leaders, including President Barack Obama, who may lose their political life to the electoral guillotine, Putin is strong. He faces no grave problem of public reaction. A fine-tuning of Russian foreign policy on Syria will certainly be very lucrative in the region for Russia. Unlike many other states, including Turkey, Russia has made no sudden move and is still keeping up a dialogue with both sides. Thus, Russia presently commands a license to maneuver between the sides. If Putin brings off a high-profile involvement in the solution of the Syrian crisis, Russia will have clinched its long-term interests in the region.
The shape of the buffer zone is another very hot issue. Will it be a continuous zone that parallels Turkey’s southern border? Or will it be made up of several non-contiguous pieces? Its shape is vital, given the ethnic demographics of northern Syria. A buffer zone created for certain purposes, such as protecting civilians from the atrocities of the Bashar al-Assad regime, might easily turn into an embryonic homeland for the Syrian Kurds, or worse, into a sectarian Alawite line. The shape of the buffer zone will also be a critical issue for other states like Lebanon and Iraq. A buffer zone not in harmony with local ethnic and sectarian balances, and regional balances, is potentially the springboard for civil war.
The idea of a buffer zone is critically important for Turkey, too. I am not suggesting that Turkey should be part of the strategy that creates it. But, if its creation is inevitable, Turkey should look to its interests thus:
Decline to endorse a buffer zone that runs parallel with its southern border;
Argue against a regional buffer zone and endorse instead vertical zones stretching to the south or several small zones in Syria’s north;
The Ankara bureaucrats should immediately study the ethnic map of Syria. They must come up with possible buffer-zone shapes and locations that stretch across ethnic or sectarian divisions;
The US uses some typical strategies to create buffer zones and is prone to creating them along ethnic lines, to make its involvement easier by framing the boundaries of zones according to loyal and opposition groups. Those styles should not be practiced in Syria.