Tension is running high at Turkey’s borders, with the United States and its coalition partners bombing areas held by the Islamic State (IS), and IS itself mounting attacks on the region of Kobani. Amid those developments, the spotlight has turned on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement that Turkey would make military contributions to the fight against IS.
Erdogan’s mention of military action has prompted a series of questions in Ankara, for his remarks indicate Turkish contribution would not be limited to humanitarian logistical support [as previously suggested]. Following Erdogan’s statement, Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan stressed yesterday [Sept. 23] that participation in military operations could come in various forms. “Whether we fire bullets or not is one thing, being involved militarily is another,” he said.
Turkey has been the country feeling most severely the impact of the Syrian civil war ever since its outbreak. Turkey has seen 49 consulate staff and their families taken hostage in Mosul before rescuing them after monthlong efforts, has been flooded by some 1.5 million Syrian refugees over the past two years and has most recently opened its doors to Yazidis fleeing IS as well as Syrian Kurds from Kobani, whose number has exceeded 140,000 in only a week. Hence, it’s only natural for Ankara to keep all options on the table. Erdogan’s statement should be seen in this context, too.
As we said, a number of options are being considered. It should be immediately pointed out that setting up a buffer zone — an idea that Ankara floated but couldn’t get through when the Syrian war first erupted and drove hundreds of thousands to the border — is not likely to materialize this time either due to unfavorable climate at the United Nations.
The security bodies, primarily the General Staff, have begun to update their contingency plans, taking into account the worst scenarios.
Our sources indicate that an option has prevailed to set up a “safe zone” along the Turkish border. Ankara is currently working on this option, described also as a “security belt” that would stretch along the whole border and involve Turkish soldiers in charge in certain areas.
Under the plan, the belt would reach up to 20-25 kilometers [12.5-15.5 miles] in width and be manned both by Turkish soldiers and troops from other countries that support the establishment of the zone. Since the border is quite long, sources say, a second option is being considered, under which the safe zone would consist only of a number of pockets connected through secure corridors.
The sources stress a safe zone would be expected to be accompanied by a simultaneous decision for a corresponding “no-fly" zone.
And what purpose the safe zone will serve? The answer we got is this: To better organize humanitarian aid missions and rid the region of conflict and risks in the long run.
If either of the options materializes, a military force consisting of troops from coalition countries and at least two Turkish brigades will be deployed in the region.
Any demand to use Incirlik air base?
The question whether the Incirlik air base [in southern Turkey] is being used has been constantly raised since the coalition began pounding IS and Erdogan spoke of Turkish military support for the operation.
The sources suggest that US warplanes do not actually need the Incirlik base. Given that the United States has aircraft carriers in the region as well as a number of air bases, mainly in Qatar, the United States is expected to ask to use the Incirlik base only for its unmanned surveillance aircraft taking off from Crete.
Besides that, Ankara is always ready for logistical support for humanitarian purposes, the sources say.
Which option materializes will become clear after Erdogan returns from the United States. Other hints about Ankara’s road map in the fight against IS will emerge from the scope of the Iraq and Syria motions the government will submit to parliament [in a bid to get authorization for cross-border actions] as soon as lawmakers return from recess on Oct. 2.
As planning continues along these lines, the refugee waves and the state of Turkish troops at the border are also closely monitored. Land Forces Commander Gen. Hulusi Akar was again in the region yesterday, inspecting military units, as part of frequent one-day visits to the border.
Security officials estimate that the refugee influx from Syria’s Kobani region might eventually total 400,000 people. Contingency measures are being taken accordingly.
We’ve also learned that military reinforcement of two or three divisions has been sent to the region — both because of the scale of the new refugee waves that may follow and the unrest surrounding attempts [by Turkish Kurds] to cross from Suruc to Syria [to help fellow Kurds against IS].
In sum, hectic work is underway in Ankara on many fronts, from border security and refugee waves to the fight against IS and other developments that may follow in its wake.
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