Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Turkey Seeks to Establish ‘Safe Zone’ Along Syrian Border
Mehul Srivastava and David Gardner in Ankara
Financial Times

Turkey plans to deepen its involvement in Syria by establishing a de facto safe zone that could eventually cover some 4,000 sq km of territory where both Isis and Kurdish militias would be kept at bay.

The plan involves the Turkey-backed Free Syria Army working with rebel groups to consolidate and extend recently captured territory south of the Turkish border.

Specifically, the FSA would push from the border town of Jarablus to join a rebel council about 40km to the south in Manbij, which was recently wrested from Isis control. The forces would eventually move south-west towards al-Bab, about 50km from Aleppo, a Turkish official said. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has asked for the US-led coalition to help create a no-fly zone over this territory, which he hopes eventually to repopulate with refugees who have fled to Turkey in the five years since the Syria conflict began.

Turkey is also pushing for a 48-hour ceasefire in the disputed city of Aleppo over next weekend’s Eid holiday, and wants at least one of two aid convoys — one each for government-held and opposition opposition-held quadrants of the city — to depart from Turkey, the official added. Negotiations over the convoys stalled at the recent G20 summit in China, where Mr Erdogan met Vladimir Putin of Russia and Barack Obama of the US.

The US has been urging Turkey for some time to orchestrate a campaign to dislodge Isis from the last remaining strip of the border that it controls.

However, Washington has consistently argued against proposals to set up a formal safe zone in the area, which it fears could involve a much bigger military commitment by the US-led coalition than simply providing air cover.

For Mr Erdogan, a Turkey-administered safe-zone with international support would position him as a significant player in a conflict in which he has largely been frustrated.

Turkish-backed rebels had, until recently, little battlefield success, prompting his US allies to depend on a Kurdish militia he despises to fight Isis.

Meanwhile, Russian and Iranian support has propped up Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president whose removal Mr Erdogan has long sought.

If it succeeds, the safe zone would also bolster Turkey’s claims to be an interlocutor in an eventual resolution of the conflict as the only party whose battlefield plan has both Russian and US approval.

Central to Ankara’s escalation in Syria has been a rapprochement with Russia, after an eight-month rift triggered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in late 2015.

Turkey sent its tanks into Jarablus late last month, where they met little resistance from Isis. That boosted the morale of the Turkish military just a month after a faction within the armed forces attempted a coup against Mr Erdogan. Several more Turkish tanks and armoured vehicles crossed into Syria over the weekend, adding to a troop build-up.

News, comment and analysis about the conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions
The August intrusion was carried out with US-support. It in effect expelled Isis from a 98km stretch of land along Turkey’s border, which Turkish and US officials said was used by foreign fighters moving in and out of Syria.

But for Turkey, it also achieved a long-stated goal of preventing the US-backed Kurdish militia, which Mr Erdogan equates with the Kurdistan Workers’ party, a terrorist group, from occupying that same space. The relatively bloodless success required the US government to rein back the Kurdish militia it has backed for years and force them to retreat east of the river Euphrates, delivering Mr Erdogan a rare foreign policy success.

If Turkey’s current plans are carried out, it would place the Turkish-backed rebels perilously close to the Kurdish militia it opposes.

It would also dramatically escalate Turkey’s military excursion into Syria and would in effect commit both the Turkish military and financial backing for the rebels for the rest of the conflict. Analysts estimate the campaign would need a force of at least 35,000 fighters and constant support from Turkish artillery and special forces.

“It would be a massive commitment which could last years,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a retired military officer now at the Tepav think-tank. “Once you take the territory, you also have to hold it, and this could last many years.”

Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer in Washington

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