Turkey starts building up its Syrian buffer zone

Turkey starts building up its Syrian buffer zone
Analysis: Keeping Syrian refugees out of Turkey in an area controlled by Ankara's troops would also result in preventing Kurdish forces from linking up along the length of the border.
5 min read
30 January, 2017
Turkish troops took the Syrian city of Jarablus from IS in August 2016 [Getty]
Recent reports in the Turkish press strongly indicate that Ankara is taking steps to rebuild and secure the buffer zone it has established in northwestern Syria - a move which indicates that Turkey does not plan to withdraw anytime soon.

Ankara's recent moves include repairing the infrastructure and policing Syria's northwestern border region, after it was cleared of Islamic State group militants by Turkish military forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters it supports as part of Turkey's ongoing Euphrates Shield operation launched late last August.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus was adamant on January 24 that Turkey would not return control over the Syrian city of al-Bab, 30 kilometres south of the Turkish border, to the Syrian regime if it were captured from IS.

At least 47 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Euphrates Shield to date, along with dozens of FSA fighters. Many of these casualties have been in al-Bab, where IS has chosen to mount a vicious fight against the offensive. As the Turkish-FSA forces in al-Bab continue to suffer losses, Ankara is reportedly preparing to bolster what might prove to be a more permanent presence in the Syrian border towns of Jarablus and Al-Rai, which were captured early in the campaign.

As Kurtmulus vowed not to return control over al-Bab to Damascus, Ali Yerlikaya, governor of Turkey's southeastern Gazientep city, spoke at a ceremony where 440 Syrian police officers trained by Turkey were preparing to deploy to Jarablus.

"Today is a very important day," Yerlikaya declared. These officers "will guarantee the security and stability of Jarablus".

"With police forces deployed, Jarablus gives hope for a free Syria," he said. "The situation in Jarablus will improve day by day thanks to Operation Euphrates Shield."

The officers were recorded chanting: "God is great", "Long live Turkey" and "Long live [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan", making clear their allegiance.

A day earlier, Hurriyet news reported that Turkey would also begin rebuilding infrastructure in Al-Rai and Jarablus.

Ankara "will send civilian officials, including teachers, doctors, nurses, highway workers and rescue teams from its Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), to the region in order to revive life there" reported the paper.

"These include the construction of infrastructure systems, opening bakeries, providing fresh water and education, and repairing damaged buildings like schools and hospitals," the report added.
Turkey sees the relatively stability of Jarablus as proof of the soundness of its long-sought plans

Turkey will send 680 personnel under a state of emergency decree, which permits "officials, including workers and state officials to temporarily be sent to countries where the Turkish army is stationed".

Turkey sees the relatively stability of Jarablus as proof of the soundness of its long-sought plans to build a buffer zone in northwestern Syria to provide a sanctuary for Syrians in their own country. As recently as January 23, Kurtulmus said that 50,000 Syrians had returned to Jarablus since Turkey forced IS out back in August.

The zone also enables Ankara to keep IS away from its border and prevent the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from expanding into northwestern Syria to link up with the isolated northwestern Kurdish canton of Afrin, which would give the Kurdish group de-facto control of the entire Syrian border with Turkey.

A permanent buffer zone controlled by either the Turkish Army or its FSA proxies would make this task extremely difficult for the YPG.

Read more: Trump's tightrope walk to establish Syrian 'safe zones'

Turkey entered the latest negotiations over Syria, sponsored by Russia in Astana, Kazakhstan, on January 23 - despite oppsition from the Syrian regime over any Turkish military presence on Syrian soil.

Damascus even threatened to shoot down Turkish jet fighters near al-Bab in November, and a suspected Iranian-made drone also killed four Turkish soldiers outside al-Bab on November 24.

Russia, on the other hand, started coordinating airstrikes with Turkey in al-Bab earlier this month.

Turkey's decision to send in limited numbers of tanks and ground forces to back the FSA early in Euphrates Shield was likely predicated on the calculation that a large influx of Turkish soldiers into Syria would have looked like an outright invasion. So they acted as more of a supporting force for the FSA.

However, the failure of the FSA to decisively rout IS from al-Bab has seen more Turkish troops visibly entering the fray.
Overt Turkish military control over Syrian territory would hardly be tolerated by Damascus, Tehran and Moscow in the long-term

"By reinforcing Turkish forces operating around al-Bab with new commando battalions and armoured units, the number of Turkish army elements into the al-Bab region reached the level of FSA forces," notes Turkish columnist Metin Gurcan.

"The operation's momentum is now being determined not by the FSA, but by the Turkish army."

Overt Turkish military control over Syrian territory would hardly be tolerated by Damascus, Tehran and Moscow in the long-term. However, they might come to accept Turkey's clear aim to leave that region in control of its proxies as part of a negotiated settlement.

Consequently, Ankara appears to be taking these solid steps now to build up a stable and secure buffer zone, to pass on to its Syrian proxies in the future.

This is similar to what the Kurdish YPG has sought to achieve in the northwestern Syrian city of Manbij, 50 kilometres northeast of al-Bab.

Last August, they forced IS out, while fighting in support of the much larger umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Arab-Kurdish coalition, of which they are a primary component. Turkey acquiesced to this under the condition that all YPG forces would withdraw from Manbij after IS was removed.

The YPG subsequently announced they had withdrawn, leaving the SDF's Manbij Military Council in control. Turkey still refuses to accept this, and Turkish officials have vowed to move against Manbij once they are finished in al-Bab - to be sure the Kurdish YPG never get a foothold there again.

It will therefore be interesting to see if, after a Turkish military withdrawal, the powers that be in Damascus, Moscow, Tehran and Washington accept a similar Turkish plan for northwest Syria. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon