The recent upsurge in Syrian refugees crossing the border into Turkey has put the debate over a buffer zone back on the agenda. Meanwhile, the refugees who were originally housed in Hatay province are quietly being moved to the prefabricated town prepared for them at Kilis [along the Eastern border].
Foreign media have reported that senior Turkish officers have come to Hatay to study the terrain and other conditions, and Prime Minister Erdogan has repeated that all options including a buffer zone are still on the table. This and the fact that concrete decisions are expected to be taken at the Friends of Syria conference are all signs that a new stepping up from tension to armed confrontation is imminent in Turkish-Syrian relations.
At the moment, three separate debates are under way. The first concerns the military/civilian buffer zone in Syrian territory along Turkish or Lebanese borders. The second is over the humanitarian corridors that seek to deliver military and humanitarian assistance to the regions where the opposition has a militarily advantage and is in control. One other option is the formation of a humanitarian corridor to the Mediterranean. The third plan to provide a safe zone for the opposition in a larger area. Recent clashes suggest that Idlib could be designated as the center of such a zone.
Nevertheless the prevailing opinion is that the opposition doesn’t yet have the military capacity that would make a safe zone feasible like it was in Libya’s Benghazi.
If Turkey is to pursue its policy of “all options are on the table,” it must clearly define why such a zone is needed. If a buffer zone is to be established purely out of humanitarian concerns and to host the refugees inside Syria, such a zone will have to be protected by military elements. This could mean war between Syria and Turkey. If decision makers have decided to risk war to create such a zone, they will have to analyze its consequences carefully. Such a war may well spread beyond the Syrian border. Communities such as the Nusayris that support the Syrian regime may also enter into clashes with Turkey to defend their own land.
If Turkey decides to set up a buffer zone near Kilis, then we have to be ready for military resistance in the area where Syrian Kurds are in the majority in Afrin and its villages.
Any clash with Syrian military or civilian elements in either of those two areas will have profound effects on the Syrian crisis. We still don’t know how other NATO members will respond should Turkey engage Syria militarily. Statements of President Obama and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe make it clear that they don’t favor military intervention in Syria. Without NATO support, Turkey will have to fight Syria unilaterally. Although we may be militarily superior to the Syrian army, the possible involvement of Syrian civilians may change the situation.
Should Syrian civilians be killed in such a confrontation, the international community’s support for Turkey’s unilateral buffer zone declaration is bound to diminish. Increased civilian fatalities will mean harsh criticism of Turkey.
To sum up, if a buffer zone is meant to create a safe zone on another country’s territory, then it must be supported by military force. The involvement of military elements could then lead to a war between these forces. With the participation of civilian elements, Turkey and Syria could easily find themselves in an all-out war.
For now, we don’t have a public opinion poll telling us if the Turkish public would tolerate such a war.