Turkey Pulse

Turkey Creates De-Facto Buffer Zone in Syria

Article Summary
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan called Syria a threat to Turkey and unveiled new rules of engagement for the military this week. If Syrian troops approach the border, they will now be targeted, writes Cengiz Candar. But the size and scope of this vaguely-defined area leaves the final decision to Turkey.

If the Syrian regime acts in the way that Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s recent descriptions would suggest, Turkey will be declaring a de facto “buffer zone” in Syria.

NATO stands with Turkey. It strongly denounced the Syrian regime and stated that the shooting down of the Turkish plane was unacceptable. This is the only thing that came out of the NATO meeting, which was called after Turkey invoked Article 4 [of NATO’s founding document]. Nothing else was expected. But, since NATO long ago declared that an intervention — like the one that took place in Libya —  would be impossible in Syria, the only option left for NATO was to condemn Syria verbally and express solidarity with Turkey. However, as an added benefit, NATO’s involvement in the situation shows that Turkey is firmly anchored within the NATO system, despite earlier suspicions that Turkey might be acting autonomously, or even reorienting its political axis.

At the outset of the Libya crisis, Prime Minister Erdogan’s first reaction was: “What is NATO doing there?” Today, however, when Turkey rang NATO’s doorbell when it conflicted with Syria, Turkey seems to be openly happy with NATO’s solidarity. These two reactions come from the same government.

Security Risks from Syria to the Turkish Border

Of course, Prime Minister Erdogan’s speech yesterday [June 26] was more important than the NATO communiqué. As Turkey’s chief political decision maker, he was there to enlighten us on what Turkey would be doing in response to the latest events.

What did he say? Where are we on the Syrian issue now?

You always have to filter what the prime minister says, and all his talks include plenty of polemical comments on domestic policies. His speech yesterday was simultaneously translated into English and Arabic. If you ignore the irrelevant and emotional parts that were lost in translation to those listening in Arabic and English, this is what he said:

“Turkey will never tolerate or refrain from responding to security risks that are created by the Syrian regime at our borders. Rules of engagement for the Turkish Armed Forces [TAF] during this new phase have been modified accordingly. Any military element that approaches the Turkish border that poses a security risk will be assessed as a threat and treated as a military target.”

This is important because it is a new and concrete policy.

Earlier, he said that since the Turkish plane was shot down, Syria was considered a “security threat." What he said can be broadly summarized as:
1. Syria is henceforth a security threat to Turkey.
2. The rules of engagement for TAF concerning Syria have been modified accordingly.
3. Henceforth, any Syrian military element that approaches the Turkish border that poses a security risk will be considered a military target.

This was possibly the first time that Turkey became acquainted with the term “rules of engagement.” However, when translated from English into Turkish, the term loses much of its meaning.

TAF’s Modified Rules of Engagement

Rules of engagement define what military elements can or will do in a military operation within a legally defined framework. They are determined by political decisions and they frame the responsibilities of commanders and military personnel. The framework determines what kind of operation is required and how it will be implemented.

According to Prime Minister Erdogan, in areas near the Turkish-Syrian border, force can and will be used against Syrian military elements that are moving toward Turkey. This represents the TAF’s newly-modified rules of engagement regarding Syria.

But, there is some ambiguity here. How close to the Turkish-Syrian border does a Syrian military presence have to be to constitute a threat against Turkey? What actions by Syrian soldiers will be seen as a “security risk” to Turkey?

These are important words from Erdogan because it means Turkey no longer recognizes Syrian sovereignty in all parts of Syria. They also mean that Syrian military elements, even within Syria’s own borders, could be interpreted as a military target and threat against Turkey.

Turkey Declares De Facto Buffer Zone

Elements of the Syrian military will be banned in a zone — whose specific dimensions have not yet been released — near the Turkish-Syrian border.

What if the regime of Bashar al-Assad does not toe the line? What if it keeps sending its troops all the way to the border? That would mean that it is willing to confront a Turkish military operation.

But it is not clear what kind of military presence or what proximity to the border constitutes a threat to Turkey. Surely, our government and military are aware of this. Perhaps that NATO has even informed Syria of these changing rules of engagement through certain channels.

But, we do not know, and neither does the public.

After Prime Minister Erdogan’s speech yesterday, the future for Turkish-Syrian relations is even more ambiguous.

Is War With Syria Near or Distant?

The questions: “Will there be a war?” and “Are we entering Syria?” have become legitimately valid questions since yesterday. What if we ask a simpler question: “After Erdogan’s speech yesterday, is a war with Syrian near or distant?”

The most correct response would be: “It is not distant,” because the answer to this question depends on Assad and Russia more than Turkey. If they think that NATO and EU support for Turkey is insignificant and they deem that it is more beneficial for their policies to accept Erdogan’s challenge, then since yesterday, a war is closer than the day before. 

Found in: turkish plane, syria, erdogan, conflict, buffer zone, bashar al-assad, assad, anti-aircraft guns

Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Stockholm University Institute of Turkish Studies (SUITS). On Twitter: @cengizcandar


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