Turkish forces to enter Syria to create buffer zone along border

First, the Kurds appear to have accelerated their plans to declare an autonomous Kurdish region in the Kurdish areas of Syria, a region which would then negotiate a federative arrangement with the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. The Kurds have been emboldened by the growing effectiveness of their forces – the result of increasing U.S. military aid and training, and the presence of U.S. Special Forces on the ground. The New York Times notes that the U.S.-supported Syrian Kurds have achieved two major victories against ISIS. Last fall, ISIS was pushed out of Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish city which ISIS fought over for months under heavy aerial bombardment by coalition forces. ISIS lost thousands of its fighters in its futile effort to keep the city. In recent weeks, the Kurds pushed ISIS from Tal Abyad, an important border town not far from Raqqa, which American officials say was the most trafficked crossing for foreign fighters entering Syria from Turkey.

Second, the Syrian army is no longer a functional military force. Since January, regime forces have suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the moderate Syrian rebels and ISIS, and have retreated to positions around Damascus and in the Alawite region in north-west Syria. The entry of Turkish forces into Syria may thus encounter opposition from U.S.-armed Kurds, but the remnants of Assad’s army are no longer in a position to do prevent Turkey from entering Syria.

The Telegraph reports that the plans for an incursion into Syria were discussed in a meeting of Turkey’s national security council on Sunday. Following Erdogan’s speech, Turkish media were briefed on new orders being given to the military to prepare to send a force of 18,000 soldiers across the border, with some reports saying the move could take place as early as this Friday.

The Turkish officials who briefed the Turkish media said the troops would seize a strip of Syrian territory 60-miles long by 20-miles deep, including the border crossings of Jarablus, currently in ISIS hands, and Aazaz, which is currently controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but which is under attack by ISIS.

The planned buffer zone would allow Turkey to build refugee camps on Syrian soil under Turkish protection, rather than on Turkish soil as is currently the case, and it would also prevent the two regions currently under Kurdish control — from Kobane to the Iraq border in the east, and Afrin in the west — from joining up.

Turkey says that the buffer zone would also allow Turkey better to control the flow of weapons and fighters into Syria. Turkey has been criticized for doing enough to prevent foreign recruits from crossing from Turkey into Syria to join ISIS.

Officially, Turkey is using the on-going attacks by ISIS on Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army as the pretext for the coming action. “ISIL, along with other armed groups that have the potential to jeopardize Turkey’s security [read: the Kurds], will be included as threats to Turkey in the amended rules and the Turkish armed forces could launch an operation against ISIL once it approaches its borders,” the pro-Erdogan Sabah newspaper reported.

The Financial Times reported on Monday that Jordan was drawing up similar plans for a safe buffer zone in southern Syria, following concerns that ISIS could gain control over territory close to the Jordanian border if the Syrian military were to withdraw from the city of Deraa.

Erdogan’s buffer zone plan has its critics. The Turkish military would rather join the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS, or, alternatively, send a much larger force into Syria to establish a more robust, and better protected, buffer zone.

There are also question about whether an invasion of Syria is permitted without a vote in parliament – and without a UN Security Council vote.

There is also the question of domestic politics. Erdogan’s party suffered a humiliating defeat in the parliamentary election last months, and lost its majority. The current government is in power as an interim government until an agreement on a coalition is reached between Erdogan’s party and one of the smaller potential partners. Critics say that an interim government does not have the mandate for such a bold move.

Any Turkish military action in Syria would also complicate Turkey’s strained efforts to negotiated peace with Turkey’s own Kurdish minority. Kurdish leaders said Monday that any action in Syria would undermine the peace process in Turkey.