Will cross-border firefight with IS expedite Turkey's new Syria policy?

The recent clash between Turkish soldiers and IS will speed up implementation of Ankara's recent accord with the US.

al-monitor Syrian refugees wait in front of the Akcakale border gate in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 22, 2015, to return to their homes in the northern Syrian town of Tell Abyad. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

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turkey-syrian border, turkey's middle east policy, turkey, kobani, islamic state, isis

Jul 24, 2015

The suicide bombing in Suruc and the aftershocks that followed coincided with Turkey’s reshaping of its strategy in northern Syria, especially vis-a-vis the Islamic State (IS). The events at the Kilis border yesterday — which brought the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) into direct clashes with IS — will undoubtedly expedite the finalization of the new strategy, and the accord reached with the United States for the west of the Euphrates River will be implemented much quicker.

Reports that the agreement reached with the United States has been submitted for secret approval to the Council of Ministers prompted questions about the contents of the agreement.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party's (PYD) capture of Tell Abyad had created a new equation in northern Syria. If the PKK-PYD that had succeeded in linking up Kobani and Jazeera cantons also took control of the Jarablus-Afrin line, it could have claimed the control of the entire Syrian border with Turkey. IS, meanwhile, did not wait long to direct its attacks to the area controlled by the Free Syrian Army between Jarablus-Afrin. Watching the developments and potential implications carefully, Turkey declared that it had drawn a red line that won’t allow either IS or PKK-PYD to cross west of the Euphrates. Turkey did not stop there and continued with preparations for its unilateral creation of a safe zone in that area, and informed Russia and Iran accordingly.

Turkey, which from the first days of the Syrian civil war had advocated a no-fly zone and establishment of a safe zone, could not, however, obtain US backing. Nevertheless, Turkey persisted with its thesis and conveyed its determination to the US delegation under John Allen that recently visited Ankara. The sensitivity of the TSK to the Syrian border and the Jarablus line became public knowledge, and the high-level visit by the military command to the area attracted more attention than usual.

In the negotiations with the Allen delegation, an agreement on Turkey’s views including the use of the Incirlik Air Base was reached. The following is what I have been able to learn about the contents of that agreement and Ankara’s safe zone plans.

Safe zone

The Jarablus-Azez line that Turkey defines as a critical zone, or a safe zone, of 100 kilometers (62 miles) long and 40 kilometers (24 miles) wide is planned. This zone will also be declared a no-fly zone. The goal is to eliminate IS and PYD threats to the area and prevent a massive immigration wave originating from Aleppo. Turkey will control the safe zone with long-range artillery and heavy weapons. Turkey’s physical intervention in the safe zone will be triggered if Ankara’s two red lines are violated: an attack west of the Euphrates River either by IS or PYD, and an immigration wave.

Attacks against the local population in that zone by IS or any other force will be confronted by coalition air forces. In this context, coalition forces and the United States, which are keeping up their air operations against IS, will be allowed limited use of the Incirlik Air Base. Incirlik will be open to a limited number of US and coalition airplanes. US ground forces will not be allowed to use the base, but a technical military group will be based there.

According to the action plan, planes will be using Incirlik for aerial reconnaissance flights and to launch bombing runs if the safe zone is attacked.

There is no plan to base Turkish and American ground forces at the base, as Turkey will confront the threats with long-range artillery and the United States will do the same with its air force.

Only for landings

Arming of US Predator unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] will be allowed by the new accord. Two out of six Predators will be armed. These UAVs will be used for special operations and targeted attacks.

There is also the question of opening the Diyarbakir and Batman air bases to US and coalition planes. But this is likely to be restricted only to emergency landings.

A joint declaration about the accord reached with the United States may be issued soon while Turkey’s Council of Ministers is in the process of approving the deal.

Heavy security at the border

Parallel to these developments, a new integrated border security project that has been on the agenda since 1998 is likely to be implemented soon. The system, based mainly on electronic surveillance, will reduce the number of troops to be based on the border. With implementation of the integrated system, the objectives are to block border infiltrations, reinforce border security, and prevent foreign militant crossings and human trafficking.

The system that calls for the erection of walls in critical areas will be implemented in installments of 30 to 60 kilometers (18 to 37 miles).

Airships (blimps) will be used for around-the-clock surveillance.

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