Turkey debates buffer zone in Syrian territory, many questions linger

Human rights activists call for Syrian refugees fleeing a bloody crackdown by pro-Assad forces to be given official status.(PHOTO MUSTAFA KİRAZLI)

March 25, 2012, Sunday/ 12:43:00

While the violence in Syria escalates at full speed, Turkey is still debating what action is needed to prevent the situation from disintegrating into civil war.

Turkey has started to discuss the prospect of setting up a buffer zone to protect the increasing number of refugees fleeing violence from the military crackdown in Syria, frequently reiterating that all options are on the table to end the violence there. Turkey has failed to take tangible steps so far, despite harboring defectors from the Syrian army and repeatedly calling on Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Turkish officials say the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrians into Turkey would be the only precondition for Turkey to establish a safe zone, similar to the buffer zone it established two decades ago to contain the mass migration of Kurdish peshmerga from Iraq.

However, many unanswered questions remain over whether Turkey will act alone or in coalition, or whether it will even choose to follow this course of action.

A former fellow at the Transatlantic Academy is pessimistic about the possible outcomes of such an initiative, although he believes the current discussions are inspiring.

He warns the project would be likely to encounter very serious difficulties.

In world affairs “the road to hell is often paved with good intentions,” says Kemal Kirişci, underlining that the establishment of the safety zone in Syria could prove troublesome for Turkey, necessitating a Turkish military intervention. Such unilateral action would be against international law, unless Syria itself calls for Turkey’s support or the intervention is authorized by the United Nations Security Council.

Kirişci believes the possibility of a buffer zone being established to provide shelter for civilians in Syria would certainly raise eyebrows further afield: Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia was accompanied by accusations that it was in violation of international law.

“Any military intervention into Syria by Turkey might easily lead to Russia asking ‘Why?’ and ‘What is the legal justification for this?’,” says Kirişci, adding that Russia would be right in asking “On which premise are you [Turkey] intervening in Syria?” According to Kirişci, Russia would not be the only country raising these questions. It should be remembered that the haven set up in northern Iraq in 1991 to ensure the safety of more than a million refugees based its legitimacy on UN Security Council Resolution 688. Even then, the subsequent events caused Turkey considerable headaches that today seem to have been forgotten.

Turkey fears a repeat of the massive influx of refugees it witnessed in 1991 and is therefore considering ways to avoid the same challenges with Syria. Thousands of Syrians are fleeing escalating violence in their country and crossing into Turkey, which has so far accommodated them in tent and container cities. There are currently almost 17,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey and more are expected to arrive as the violence in Syria continues.

In an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Joshua W. Walker, a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, says that Turkey’s Syria policy at this stage depends on how Turkey is going to get Syria as a whole.

Walker, echoing Kirişci, says that getting Syria “wrong” could affect Turkey more than any other country so that Ankara should weigh its options to decide how to deal with Assad and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in its southern neighbor. Commenting on Turkey’s possible intervention into Syria to end the year-long violence there and setting up a buffer zone for refugees and opposition fighters, Walker said having sought the role of regional mediator over the last decade, Turkey’s litmus test of the ruling party’s leadership comes in Damascus, beginning with how Erdoğan deals with the Assad regime and helps create the conditions necessary to make changes that are needed to bring Syria into the 21st century. Walker also says that getting Syria right is critical for Turkey yet almost entirely beyond its own control. “Ankara needs to cautiously weigh its options with regard to Assad’s ongoing onslaught on his own people,” says Walker, adding an embattled Assad regime will force Turkey into some type of action, as Turkey’s leaders know that they can not sit idly by as its neighbor disintegrates into civil war, nor can it afford to intervene unilaterally.

However, Walker believes regardless of whether or not Ankara keeps its strategic options open by pursuing the establishment of the buffer zone, events on the ground in Syria could rapidly force Ankara into intervening in either a limited humanitarian or full-scale manner.

Speaking about what kind of buffer zone is going to be established, Walker said the buffer zone would involve working closely with the Syrian opposition and local coordinating committees to provide logistical, intelligence, weapons, training, communications, and even air support to help the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and opposition establish no-kill zones along Syria’s northwest border. “This approach would be a significant departure from Turkey’s status-quo and non-interventionist policy until now,” says Walker, adding that it would align rising rhetoric coming from Ankara with the proactive steps that would be necessary to remove Assad from power.

Turkey frequently says it will not remain indifferent to a bloody crackdown in Syria, pointing to a sharp increase in the number of Syrians fleeing to Turkey every day as an example of how it could be affected. Following the Syrian National Council’s call for the establishment of a safe haven within Syria, the Turkish government said it may consider setting up a buffer zone in the country to protect the Syrians against the Assad regime.

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