In September 2019, US and Turkish forces began patrolling a ‘buffer zone’ along the Turkish-Syrian border, realizing a long-term policy goal for Ankara. Turkey has called for a buffer zone on its southern border for almost the entire duration of the conflict in Syria. It continued pushing the idea long after Washington and some of its Western allies dismissed a no-fly zone in Syria as too difficult to enforce. The viability of such a zone policed by Western aircraft was shot to pieces once Russia committed forces to Syria in 2015. So why the Turkish obsession?
The answer lies not in the refugees that would ostensibly have moved into a buffer zone but with the population native to much of the border area: the Kurds. Since the 1960s, Turkey has waged a low-intensity guerrilla war against militant Kurdish groups, the most important of which is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Although a largely one-sided conflict, given Turkey’s military dominance, the ability of PKK militants to sneak across the border into Turkey and Iraq has stymied Turkish efforts to crush the group. Syrian state support for the PKK during the 1960s and ’70s also allowed the militants to establish a more permanent presence in Syria’s ethnically Kurdish north. As with most borders, this frontier has long been porous, allowing the smuggling of black market goods as well as arms. For decades, Turkey has engaged in military campaigns in Iraq to strike PKK positions and arguably went a step further in northern Syria by sponsoring the 2018 invasion of the Afrin district, then Kurdish held, to install Ankara-backed forces.
A buffer zone along the border provides not just a red line for Kurdish military activity, which the Turks will no doubt be keen to police with their array of advanced aircraft and domestically produced un-manned aerial vehicles. It also offers a clearly delineated insulation zone for the PKK elements based or operating in Turkey. Theoretically, demarcating a military exclusion zone such as a buffer zone would allow Ankara to cut off supplies to PKK militants inside Turkey. In reality, they have little need of complex supply lines. The PKK has the ability to embed itself in the civilian population and has few material demands outside of locally procured food and daily supplies (the PKK in Turkey rarely fights with heavy weapons and stashes light weapons in hills and towns). Still, Turkey has pursued a buffer zone, presumably as a way to put added pressure on Kurdish armed groups in Syria and to try and prevent the movement of weapons (new supplies of which have come from US forces) from further infiltrating into Turkey. There is already evidence that US-made rockets given to Iraqi forces have made their way into the Turkish-Syrian border region.
A herculean effort
Originally, a buffer zone was ostensibly demanded on humanitarian grounds. Since 2011, Turkey has taken in more Syrian refugees – an estimated 3.6 million – than any other country. Tensions have flared between Turkish and Syrian communities numerous times, and they continue to rise in certain regions. However, the call for a buffer zone seems to have been a thinly veiled attempt to further domestic security and political goals by leveraging international humanitarian concerns. If Syrians in Turkey are deported to this buffer zone, there are fears that what some view as forced demographic changes in Afrin – where non-Kurdish refugees have been moved into Kurdish homes – could be replicated in this new buffer region.
In August 2019, the US and Turkey agreed to various elements, including air control and headquarters for a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Forces from both countries began patrolling the zone in September 2019, no doubt a compromise measure designed to allay Kurdish fears of Turkish forces being given free rein to use military force in the area. These patrols also serve an important PR role for Turkey, as photos and videos of US and Turkish troops working alongside each other aim to help mend relations between Washington and Ankara, which have been decidedly testy in recent years.
However, the illusion of a done deal came undone even as patrols were already taking place when Ankara accused Washington of duplicity. Turkey’s foreign minister said that US moves to implement shared policing of the zone were merely ‘cosmetic’. Apparently, no agreement has been reached on how deep the buffer zone should be, with the Turks demanding 40 kilometres and the US only offering 20.
Despite this lack of agreement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set a September deadline for the US to fully comply or risk another Turkish intervention in northern Syria.
Why the pressure?
Erdogan is under growing pressure at home to find a solution to tensions, perceived and real, between Syrian refugees and the Turkish communities hosting them. The slowing Turkish economy, in particular, has provoked rising anti-Syrian sentiment, with hard-up Turks quick to blame Syrians for their troubles. The buffer zone has long presented a publicly palatable way to push Syrians back into Syria, regardless of their connection to the region or even their willingness to go back. In recent months, Turkey has been forcibly deporting Syrians across the border, despite claiming the contrary, in a move that is no doubt designed to ease public criticism of the government’s management of the country’s Syrian population.
Ankara has threatened an incursion east of the Euphrates into north-east Syria for years. Unlike its campaign in Afrin, which is a small and isolated territory, an invasion of the much larger Syrian Kurdish-controlled region would likely be even more costly in terms of manpower and materials, with far more risk of mission creep, given the lack of geographical constraints. Despite his bluster, the potential costs are likely to deter Erdogan from committing troops to an incursion into the buffer zone, but with attacks on the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (which Ankara claims are tied to the PKK), Turkey could certainly inflame tensions in the area.
The real cost of a buffer zone
The tragic irony of Turkey’s efforts to implement a buffer zone is that years after it tabled the idea on humanitarian grounds, the suffering of Syrian civilians and their need for such a zone on humanitarian grounds has not decreased. As can be seen from the angry protests in Idlib province on the border with Turkey, which will not be covered by the buffer zone, the advance of Syrian regime forces still poses an enormous threat to civilians. Indeed, these forces have merely sidestepped the Turkish observation posts in Idlib that were meant to protect civilians from further encroachment or violence. It seems that with so much to win or lose geopolitically in Syria, the country’s people hold little value for the regional powers. Turkey has spent much of the war securing its own borders, and the buffer zone appears to be little more than an extravagant frontier defence.
The buffer zone in northern Syria, which was mooted for years, has finally taken shape with this latest US-Turkish cooperation. However, any accord in Syria seems fragile and – as evidenced by the Astana agreements – has no guarantee of being honoured. Regardless of the needs of Syrians for an end to the conflict and safe spaces to live, it seems that the geopolitical interests of the strongest parties to the conflict will decide the country’s fate.