Following a remark by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey might tolerate “something like going with [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad in the transition process” — which signified a 180-degree turn in Erdogan's Syria policy — many wondered what Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would pull out of his briefcase at the UN General Assembly in New York.
Not surprisingly, Davutoglu apparently clarified Erdogan's statement, saying Turkey does not want Assad involved in any transition period.
Davutoglu also reiterated that Turkey has not given up its ambitions for a safe zone in Syria. Of course, the plan he came out with is not called a buffer zone or a safe zone. The new plan, in embellished packaging, is for a “container city” for refugees in a protected zone.
Davutoglu briefed Turkish journalists about the new plan seeking a solution for the refugee issue:
“A safe zone is important. The only way to achieve that is to reinforce the Free Syrian Army and moderate elements. Much is being done for this. Daesh [the Islamic State] had boosted its capability on our border. Now they are pushed back to the east of the Marea-Hercele line. The next target is to push Daesh south from its Jarablus-Azez front line. We don’t want to see Daesh at our border, or the Syrian regime. … EU has offered 1 billion euro [$1.1 billion] assistance. We told them we won’t have concentration camps in Turkey. But we have the capacity to set up three container cities, each for 100,000 people, between Jarablus-Azez. We did it after the Van earthquake. Costs will be paid by the EU and we will do the construction.”
“Refugee city in a protected zone” is another way of saying a buffer or a safe zone for the Syrian opposition.
Turkey’s new proposal would be very difficult to implement and, if ever achieved, would entail serious risks.
First of all, Ankara is ignoring these realities:
- Syria is a distinct, sovereign state. Davutoglu is treating Aleppo like the Turkish city Van.
- Jarablus-Azez is smack in the middle of the front line.
- As the Syrian army will eventually regain control of its land, these container cities will be inevitably caught up in the fire.
- Container cities cannot be protected without declaring a buffer or a safe zone.
- Establishing a safe or buffer zone is beyond Turkey’s means. Such an operation would require a full-fledged war and would not be backed by any allies, including the United States.
- Russian military deployment, which includes radars and defensive systems, eliminates the options for a safe or buffer zone.
- Turkey still says the Syrian regime cannot restore its control over “liberated areas.” Erdogan and Davutoglu, who until Sept. 29 claimed Assad intends to set up an Alawite state on the Latakia-Tartus coastal line, now have switched to the theory that Assad is going to set up a “boutique state.” Speaking after his Moscow visit, Erdogan said, “Assad wants to set up a boutique Syria. That boutique will start from Damascus and cover Hama, Homs and Latakia, which will be 15% of Syrian territory.”
- Erdogan seems to have forgotten that Damascus, Hama, Homs and Latakia are lifelines of Syria; the Syrian army controls half of Aleppo, Daraa and Deir ez-Zor; Suwayda and Tartus are under state control; and the Kurds had promised to keep their cantons in the north attached to the Syrian territory. Erdogan, who has calculated that Assad only controls 15% of the country, attaches amazing importance to empty deserts that nobody is interested in controlling.
Anyway, nobody in Syria pays any attention to the “Alawite state” scenarios that have been floating about. Moreover, there is no sign that the Syrian army has given up on any town or village. To the contrary, the new alliance Russia has formed with Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah is changing the military balance in the region and bolstering expectations that the Syrian army is poised to expand its area of control. There are also strong indicators that Russia will support the Syrian air operations close to the Turkish border. Turkey should expect clashes near its borders in the not-too-distant future.
If the refugee cities Turkey has proposed are built despite all the drawbacks, what risks could result?
- As Syria continues to survive with its army, intelligence and state bodies, for Turkey to come out and say “We don’t want to see regime forces near our borders” and to build cities in liberated zones of Syria would mean making the de facto division of that country permanent. Wasn’t Ankara for preservation of Syria's territorial integrity? The Justice and Development Party government that subscribes to cliche terminology such as “Alawite regime,” “Assad’s army,” “Assad’s soldiers” and “Assad’s warplanes” seems to be unaware of the reality of the Syrian state and that the Syrian army doesn’t belong to one person.
- The only alternative in the safe zone cleansed from the Islamic State will not be the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but a Middle East-style Taliban. In the area Turkey has its eyes on, in addition to the dominating status of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, Central Asian militants affiliated with the Taliban are busy inaugurating their Syrian branches. According to one claim, 3,500 Chinese-citizen Uighurs affiliated with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) have settled down in Idlib in north Syria with the help of the Turkish intelligence.
There are reports that Uighurs are participating in operations of the Fatah Conquest Army led by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. TIP-affiliated Uighurs had already attracted attention with their photos at the Abu al-Duhur military base the opposition had captured at Idlib.
In other words, the FSA that Davutoglu wants reinforced has no significance in the zone Turkey wants to control.
Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are keen to maintain good relations with Turkey. Recently there was a leadership change in Ahrar al-Sham to make it more palatable to the West. Abu Yahya al-Hamawi, who has replaced Abu Jaber as its leader, is seen as someone who will fit the “moderate Salafist” image Ahrar al-Sham wants to have. Ahrar al-Sham has already declared its support for Turkey’s safe-zone proposal. Labib al-Nahhas, Ahrar al-Sham’s new foreign affairs official, insisted in an article he penned for the Washington Post on July 10 (and on July 21 in the Daily Telegraph) that they are not extremists or al-Qaeda affiliates. Washington must have noticed Ahrar al-Sham’s flexibility.
Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria — in an article he co-authored with Middle East analyst Ali El Yassir — advised the United States to work with Ahrar al-Sham.
Ahrar al-Sham's market value has certainly shot up since the fable of trained and equipped moderates was dispelled.
In a nutshell, Turkey’s daydreams about Syria are still in the news. But the latest aspiration to build refugee cities is irrelevant to new developments in the field and in the international arena, and it is destined to collect dust on a shelf.
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