But these ‘safe’ zones might not be so safe for Kurdish groups
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
American warplanes carrying out air strikes in Syria are now free to fly from a base in southern Turkey — putting U.S. pilots closer to the front lines. More importantly, Ankara is set to receive Washington’s backing for a buffer zone in northern Syria.
On July 24, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that American and other coalition aircraft would be able to use Incirlik Air Base and other airfields to strike Islamic State — also referred to as ISIS or its Arabic acronym Daesh—in neighboring Syria and Iraq. The U.S. State Department confirmed this at a press conference the same day.
“The Council of Ministers … has granted clearance for the deployment of manned and unmanned aircraft from the U.S. and other coalition members participating in air operations against Deash [sic],” the Turkish statement read.
“Naturally, elements of the Turkish air force will also be tasked with the same objective in these operations.”
At the same time, Turkish media reported that Washington had agreed to Ankara’s plans to establish a no-fly or buffer zone to protect its boundary with Syria. The restricted area would stretch more than 50 miles between the towns of Marea and Jarabulus and be more than 30 miles deep in some places, according to Hurriyet Daily News, citing anonymous government sources.
“Safe zones will be formed naturally,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said at a press conference a day later. While Çavuşoğlu described these “safe zones” as areas free from Islamic State fighters, he offered no details of how they might be enforced.
The U.S. government refused to confirm or deny the plan until July 27, when officials anonymously acknowledged the plan to the New York Times and Washington Post. American officials reportedly didn’t sign off on a no-fly zone that would restrict warplanes from Damascus. On the ground, “relatively moderate Syrian insurgents” would take control instead of Turkish troops, according to the Times.
But for Turkey, the specific details might not be as important as securing actual or even just tacit American support for the plan. With free reign and international backing for a buffer area, Turkish forces could get extra space to crack down on Islamic State, shoot down Syrian aircraft that stray near its borders … and block Kurdish rebels from creating their own state.
Ankara’s intervention in the war follows a deadly suicide bombing in the Turkish district of Suruç on July 20. The attack, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, killed 32 people from a left-wing political party. The activists were in the area preparing to help rebuild the shattered city of Kobane in northern Syria.
It was the worst Islamic State attack in Turkey to date, provoking a major crackdown by Turkish security forces. But any buffer zone in Syria backed by Washington — or NATO or the United Nations — would now give greater legitimacy to the steps Ankara would no doubt take on its own.
“We have always defended safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria,” Çavuşoğlu noted in his remarks. He’s not wrong. In June 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance plane, prompting Ankara to give its own troops the go-ahead to attack any of Damascus’ forces heading toward the shared border.
“Any military element from Syria moving too close to the Turkish border that is deemed a security risk will be seen as a threat and will be a military target,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the country’s parliament at the time.
Despite offering no definition of what he meant by “too close,” Erdogan effectively created a short-range no-fly zone. Since then, Ankara has made good on these threats. In September 2013, Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jets shot down an Syrian Mi-17 helicopter.
A little more than seven months later, another pair of F-16s intercepted and shot down a Syrian MiG-23 fighter bomber. Two months ago, Turkey’s jets knocked out another Syrian aircraft—Ankara says it was a helicopter, while Damascus claims it was a spy drone.
The fighting hasn’t been limited to the skies. In October 2012, Turkish and Syrian artillery traded fire across the border. The next month, NATO sent Patriot surface-to-air missiles to help protect Turkey from the threat of Syrian Scud missiles. The American, German and Spanish batteries are still dotted around the country.
On top of its own military operations, Turkey hasn’t been shy about supporting rebel groups in Syria. Ankara claims responsibility for helping support the Free Syrian Army and has been a conduit for arms and other equipment for the group.
Turkish officials have combined these unilateral actions with a public campaign for an internationally enforced buffer in the region. “Right from the beginning … we would say ‘yes’ [to a no-fly zone],” Erdogan said in an interview with NBC in 2013.
The rapid rise of Islamic State in the summer of 2014 only pushed Ankara to continue with its existing policies. Five months ago, Ankara sent a convoy of troops to remove remains and other antiquities from the Tomb of Suleyman Shah—the grandfather of the first sultan of the Ottoman Empire—nearly 20 miles across the border.
Now Turkey wants to clear Islamic State from the “safe zone” in Syria. But it also gives Ankara more authority to take on Kurdish groups it sees as an equal or even greater threat. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, in northern Syria is an affiliate of the PKK — which Turkey has fought an off-and-on war with for three decades.
“I say to the international community that whatever price must be paid, we will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier,” Erdogan declared to guests at an Eid al-Fitr dinner following the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan on June 26.
In 2013, Turkish authorities cut a peace deal with the PKK that sent the group’s fighters into northern Iraq. Both sides have violated the tenuous ceasefire that followed.
Using its status as a NATO member, Turkey has also called for an emergency meeting of the alliance. Ankara could ask for help in fighting regional terrorism broadly — whether it be from Islamic State or the PKK or both.
Turkey made its position even more painfully clear when its first air strikes on Islamic State in Syria came along with an attack on the PKK in Iraq. In response, the rebels declared their deal with Ankara to be null and void.
In short, Ankara is effectively trying to balance efforts to keep the Kurds from moving toward statehood, remove Assad from power in Syria and neutralize dangerous regional threats such as Islamic State. It should go without saying that … it’s complicated.
On top of that, the PKK and PYD are fighting Islamic State — and the PYD has benefited from hundreds of coalition air strikes during the siege of Kobane.
Washington’s support for a Turkish buffer zone, to say nothing of direct involvement in the enforcement of that plan, could easily alienate these groups. Turkish security forces are already staring at the possibility of a two-front conflict with Islamic State and the PKK.