Turkey Seeks Buffer Zone on the Border With Syria
With the United States continuing to pressure Turkey to do more in the fight against the Islamic State, Turkey’s position has hardened around an idea it has pushed for years as a strategy to confront the chaos of the Syrian civil war: a buffer zone along its frontier withSyria.
The idea is emerging as a possible way to end the standoff between the United States and Turkey, and American military planners are said to be looking at how to implement such a plan, which would require a no-fly zone and stepped up combat air patrols to take out Syrian air defense systems.
Yet the prospect of a buffer zone is proving deeply divisive in Washington, as it would go far beyond President Obama’s original mission of taking on the Islamic State and would lead to a direct confrontation with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
President Obama, at the Pentagon on Wednesday, discussed the drive against the Islamic State.As Islamic State Nears Conquest of Syrian Town, U.S. Presses TurksOCT. 8, 2014
Kurds in Suruc, Turkey, on Tuesday watching the fighting across the border in Kobani, Syria. There have been 18 airstrikes there.Turkish Inaction on ISIS Advance Dismays the U.S.OCT. 7, 2014
While Turkey has largely described the plan in humanitarian terms — to protect refugees and also Turkey’s border — the argument made privately is that a buffer zone would quickly evolve into a place where moderate rebels would be trained to fight Mr. Assad’s government; in other words, a fledgling rebel state.
Gen. John R. Allen, the envoy coordinating the coalition against Islamic State, on Thursday left for the Turkish capital. Credit Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“It would mainly be a place where an alternate government structure would take root and for the training of rebels,” said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former American envoy to the Syrian opposition.
Secretary of State John Kerry this week said the idea was “worth looking at very, very closely,” and officials within the State Department have been pushing it. The Pentagon and the White House quickly disavowed it, although they acknowledged having discussions about it. Mr. Obama on Thursday dispatched the envoy coordinating the coalition against the Islamic State, retired Gen. John R. Allen, to Ankara, the capital, for two days of talks to nudge Turkey to play a greater role and go beyond what it is already doing — sharing intelligence and taking measures to control the flow of foreign jihadis traveling through Turkey.
But when General Allen broaches the subject of direct military involvement, or even the use of an air base in Turkey, he is likely to be answered with a request for a buffer zone.
Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said on Thursday that General Allen and Brett H. McGurk, a deputy special envoy, in their meeting with Turkish officials, “emphasized that urgent steps are immediately required to degrade ISIL’s military capabilities and ongoing ability to threaten the region.”
She added that they also stressed that strengthening the moderate Syrian opposition “is crucial to any realistic and lasting political settlement of the Syrian crisis.”
The reluctance of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to do more to fight the militants has exasperated many American officials, who see Turkish tanks positioned on their side of the border, while Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish city, faces a massacre if American-led airstrikes fail to stall a militant offensive.
In comments that appeared to amplify the divide between the United States and Turkey, which has long been an important ally and is a member of NATO, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said in a news conference Thursday that a condition of Turkey’s participation in the coalition against the Islamic State is the buffer zone.
He reiterated Mr. Erdogan’s primary goal of defeating the Assad government before the Islamic State. “Tyranny and massacres will remain in the region as long as the Assad regime continues,” Mr. Cavusoglu said.
Without going into specifics, he said that once a “common decision” was reached between Turkey and its NATO allies, “Turkey will not hold back from doing its part.”
While the Islamic State’s threat to the United States and the West is mainly hypothetical at this point, and centered on future worries of foreign jihadis returning home to launch attacks, for Turkey the crisis has long been an immediate security threat.
In recent weeks, as the battle has raged over Kobani, mortar shells have been flying across Turkey’s southern border with Syria.
In the last week, Kurds enraged at Turkey’s unwillingness to help their embattled brethren in Kobani erupted in violent protests, forcing Ankara to deploy the military, impose curfews and close schools.
Buildings were set alight, statues of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s revered founder, were destroyed, and more than 20 people were killed in fighting between various factions — Kurds, Islamists and nationalists — that invoked memories of a troubled past that Turks thought they had moved beyond.
The scenes of chaos, at the border and in Turkey’s Kurdish enclaves, are part of the same struggle as Mr. Erdogan navigates his own set of interests that are, in many ways, at odds with those of Mr. Obama and the international coalition he has assembled.
For Mr. Erdogan, who recently became president after more than a decade as prime minister leading the Islamist Justice and Development Party, recent events have highlighted a paradox of his career: As he has achieved more power and more prominence, many of his signal achievements have been diminished. Last summer’s sweeping antigovernment protests and the ensuing police crackdown tarnished his democratic credentials. A corruption scandal eviscerated an image of clean government he had put forward.
The crisis over the Islamic State, and Turkey’s reluctance to intervene in Kobani or allow Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to join the fight, threatens to derail an ongoing peace process with Turkey’s own Kurds, which had been seen as one of Mr. Erdogan’s most important legacies. Mr. Erdogan has been constrained in aiding the Syrian Kurds because many of them are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which has waged an insurgency on Turkish soil for more than three decades, violence that has claimed more than 30,000 lives.