The recent pounding of the Turkey-bordering city of Aleppo by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces could be a harbinger of a refugee influx into the country, which could move Turkey close to its red line and force the country to weigh buffer zone plans along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Syria sent thousands of troops towards Aleppo on Wednesday, where attack helicopters have been pounding rebel fighters, stepping up its assault on the country’s largest city to combat a growing revolt against Assad. Opposition activists said thousands of troops had withdrawn their tanks and armored vehicles from Idlib province near the Turkish border and were headed towards Aleppo.
As hostilities intensified near the Turkish border, Turkey said it was closing its border crossings to commercial traffic, but keeping them open for Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict. A security summit chaired by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday also discussed the situation in Syria, according to a statement released after the meeting, although there was no information on the content of the discussions.
Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert with the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), claimed that the spreading of the massacres committed by the Assad regime in Houla and Hama in recent months to border cities like Aleppo would alarm Turkey, making it renew thoughts of establishing a buffer zone along Syrian border. “A refugee influx, which would amount to hundred of thousands could be a red line for Turkey [to establish a buffer zone],” Orhan emphasized.
Turkey has already signaled that it would weigh plans to establish a safety zone within Syrian territory if it is faced with a massive influx of refugees, which could be ignited if the intensity of killings spreads along its border with Syria. The current number of refugees in Turkey has already amounted to more than 44,000. The government is not specific about the exact number of refugees it would take to reach the red line, but the Turkish media has been speculating a number of as little as 50,000, which would make Turkey establish a humanitarian corridor along the border, whose security would be protected by the Turkish military.
Turkey is wary of military intervention in neighboring Syria, but has signaled that a flood of refugees entering its territory, or massacres carried out by Syrian government troops could force it to act. Turkey has pondered establishing a buffer zone in order to create a safe haven for civilians in Syria to prevent an inundation of its territory, but says that in any operation it would need some form of international agreement and involvement.
Some analysts have described the zone as a several-kilometer wide corridor in one or several border areas, and it would be justified under Turkey and Syria’s 1998 Adana Agreement, which authorizes Turkey to use military force on Syrian territory to ensure the “security and stability of Turkey.”
The most feasible location for the establishment of such a buffer zone is said to be started from Hatay’s Kırıkhan neighborhood in the northeastern part, which is mostly populated by Sunni Arabs and Turkmens. This line is also where transportation is easier, being closer to the Aleppo city center.
Meanwhile, Orhan claimed that Turkey’s ongoing delivery of reinforcements to the Syrian border could increase the possibility of a hot conflict between Turkey and Syria, especially in the case of any preparation on the ground for a safety zone under the scrutiny of Turkish military.
The relations between the two countries have been more soured after the downing of a Turkish military jet in June, after which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned that any Syrian military unit approaching its border will be treated as a direct threat to Turkey.
A Turkish RF-4E Phantom crashed off the Syrian coast over the Mediterranean on June 22 and Syrian authorities have claimed responsibility.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay stated on Tuesday after the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) meeting that Turkey expects an increase in the number of Syrian refugees in the coming period, but emphasized that it would not amount to an influx. Atalay also mentioned plans to establish new tent cities in the provinces of Kahramanmaraş, Osmaniye and Nizip, near Turkey’s eastern border with Syria.
New tent cities have already started to be established in the Akçakale neighborhood of Şanlıurfa in order to place incoming refugees. The tent city is expected to be built in 10 days, according to AFAD officials. Last week, another tent city which has the capacity of accommodating 20,000 people, was completed in Şanlıurfa.
The deputy prime minister also declined allegations of an increased security gap on the Turkey-Syria border, and the seizure of power by Kurdish groups in the northwestern provinces of Syria.
Pointing also to the AFAD meeting held to discuss the Syrian refugee issue, sources from the Foreign Ministry also said that “necessary preparations” are being made in order to cope with increasing number of refugees in Turkey.
Also, Professor İhsan Dağı, lecturing at the international relations department of Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), claimed that as Assad forces started to withdraw from northern provinces, Turkey’s chances of forming a security zone in those regions are increasing. Contrary to claims that a two- to three-fold refugee increase could be a red line for Turkey, Dağı also said to Today’s Zaman that any possible scenario involving a buffer zone or a humanitarian corridor would only be made to counter Kurdish group’s military existence at the provinces near the border.
In the last two weeks, the Assad regime has withdrawn from three major Kurdish cities of Qobani, Amude, and Afreen, and militants aligned with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) -- a PKK offshoot in Syria -- have been clashing with regime forces for control of Qamishli, the largest Kurdish city in Syria which borders the Nusaybin province of Turkey.
Speculations appeared that Syria could end being torn apart into sectarian cantons with Kurds in the north, Assad’s Alawites along the coast, Druze in the southern hills and Sunnis elsewhere. The conflict, they say, could further destabilize Syria’s neighbors, including Turkey.
Professor Fuat Keyman of İstanbul’s Sabancı University also told Today’s Zaman that Syria is like a ticking bomb for Turkey, foreseeing that a full-fledged civil war in the country could erupt in a very short time based on the existing fragmentation. Keyman said that “establishing a safe zone in Syria would not be the best solution” to stave off such a fragmentation in Syria, and Turkey along with the international community should put more pressure on Assad to leave.