Khaled Khoja of the SNC said that a buffer zone was urgently needed, telling Today's Zaman on Sunday: “We are calling for a buffer zone to be created immediately to protect the hundreds of thousands of refugees within Syria. Politicians are talking about this, but there have been no concrete steps or promises.”
Ankara has recently come under increasing pressure to act amid the national and international outcry over atrocities committed by pro-Assad forces, yet it is reluctant to act alone without a clear international mandate authorizing interference in Syria. Turkey has already signaled that it may intervene militarily to establish a safety zone within Syrian territory when it is faced with a massive influx of refugees from Syria. "A buffer zone, a security zone are things being studied," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters on Friday while his deputy, Beşir Atalay, said the move, which was considered but rejected last year, was again being contemplated.
The number of Syrian citizens who have crossed into Turkey reached almost 16,000 by Sunday and is expected to increase rapidly as clashes escalate in areas close to Turkey. The Syrian government forces widened their recent offensive in the border province of Idlib, a stronghold of the rebel FSA.
Turkey has said it has made contingency plans to accommodate as many as half a million refugees on its soil.
The only thing holding Turkey back at the moment is the lack of some sort of international legitimacy to sanction such an action. Ankara hopes that the fresh wave of violence may prod Russia and China to join the anti-Assad camp, allowing the UN Security Council to issue a strong resolution against Damascus. Last week, 200 human rights groups urged Russia and China to back UN action against Syria. Both countries have vetoed a UN Security Council resolution backing an Arab League plan to remove President Bashar al-Assad and have a new transitional government in place.
Turkish security experts seems to have formed a consensus on backing the idea of military intervention in Syria to establish a buffer zone and/or create a humanitarian corridor provided that Turkey is given a clear mandate from the international community and an unambiguous exit strategy.
“This [buffer zone] will be a temporary fix for the security of Turkey. You need to take precautions for emerging threats posed by the influx of refugees. There may be Syrian intelligence operatives who are attempting to infiltrate Turkey or Kurdish terrorists may use civilian refugees as a cover to stage attacks on Turkish targets” Mustafa Kibaroğlu, head of the international relations department at İstanbul’s Okan University, told Today’s Zaman. Kibaroğlu warned against speculation that Turkey is acting with imperial intentions, stressing that Turkey should be very careful in dealing with the Syrian issue.
“Turkey should obtain the consent of international opinion before proceeding with an action against Syria” he added.
Though ideas concerning “a security zone, a humanitarian corridor or a buffer zone” all aim to shelter civilians from violence, military protection would be necessary to provide such security. It could lead to clashes with Syrian government forces or provide sanctuary for the FSA to launch an offensive against pro-Assad forces. In any case it would change the dynamics of the year-old uprising against the Assad regime.
The SNC already said it will use the buffer zone to encourage defections and mount attacks against government targets. Khaled, who said that the buffer zone should be extended to opposition cities like Homs and Idlib, which have been severely pounded by government forces, also reiterated the need to create a buffer zone to improve the odds of the badly outgunned FSA, a loosely coordinated group of military deserters who are the only armed opposition to Damascus.
“Currently, the FSA is severely outgunned, but there are larger and larger segments of the army that would defect to join them. However, defection is extremely dangerous because there are no safe zones for defectors to flee to; this is something that a buffer zone in Syria’s north might provide.” Khaled also stated that a militarily enforced buffer zone would help whole units defect at once, taking heavy weapons and armor with them.
Defections from Syria’s Army have stepped up in recent months -- with over 50 officers and six brigadier-generals defecting to the FSA earlier in March -- but its lightly armed forces have proven unable to stand up against the army’s tanks and artillery.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions on the idea of creating a buffer zone within Syria,” said Veysel Ayhan, an expert on the Middle East from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) and an academic at Abant İzzet Baysal University. “If Turkey decides to establish a buffer zone, this may be construed as a direct challenge to the authority of the Syrian regime and may even amount to a declaration of war. From the humanitarian perspective, it is a logical step to pursue a buffer zone. But that may not be a valid argument from the viewpoint of international law,” he explained to Today’s Zaman.
Serdar Erdurmaz, a lecturer in the department of international relations at Gaziantep’s Gazikent University and a Middle East analyst from the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (TÜRKSAM), is one of those who support the idea of setting up a buffer zone. “This would put more pressure on other countries to share the burden Turkey has been shouldering alone for some time now. Those who think that Turkey is already helping out refugees with “an open door” policy will have to think twice. It will definitely get the attention of the UN,” he told Today’s Zaman.
In the meantime, the two main opposition parties in Turkey expressed reservations about a buffer zone. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) questioned the motives behind a possible incursion by Turkish military into Syria to establish a buffer zone. “Where will this buffer zone be established? In Syria? Why are we to enter Syrian territory? How would we respond if some foreign country came into Turkey and set up a buffer zone, saying, ‘You did the same in the past to Syria, now it is your turn’?” CHP Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said on Saturday.
CHP leader accused the government of doing a “contract job” in the Middle East for what he describes as “Western imperial powers.” “This [Turkish] government, which does the bidding of one [foreign] country, does not fit the [stature of] the Republic of Turkey,” he added.
In a phone interview with Today’s Zaman on Sunday, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) parliamentary group deputy chairman Mehmet Şandır said he opposed the buffer zone, saying that the only way to stop the bloodshed in Syria is through negotiation. “The buffer zone will be perceived as a declaration of war by Damascus. This will not stop the bloodshed and will definitely not help contribute to bringing the two sides together,” he noted. He said the only position the government should advocate is to “mediate between the opposition and the Assad government.”
In the meantime, a 33-year-old truck driver from Turkey was killed in an armed attack near Idlib early Sunday. The driver was identified as Mustafa Üçtaş from Reyhanlı in the southern province of Hatay. The Foreign Ministry said last week that Turkish citizens in Syria should return to Turkey amidst increasing violence in its southern neighbor. “It is evident that developments in Syria pose serious security risks to our citizens [in Syria]. In this regard, Turkish citizens in Syria are strongly advised to return home,” the ministry said in a statement on Friday. Erdoğan also signaled that Turkey may withdraw its ambassador to Damascus after Turkish citizens inside Syria return home.
Noah Blaser from İstanbul, Gözde Nur Donat and Ali Aslan Kılıç from Ankara contributed to this report.