In a Nov. 9 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a ground forces operation in Syria could be possible to establish a buffer zone, but Turkey would not conduct it alone.
“[A] ground forces [campaign] is something which we have to talk [about] together and share…there’s a need of an integrated strategy, including an air campaign and ground troops.” Davutoglu added that Turkey alone cannot take on this burden.
A Turkish security source said such an operation is unlikely without support from the UN Security Council or NATO Council.
Interestingly, almost exactly a year ago on Oct. 8, 2014, Germany’s former Chief of General Staff and NATO chairman of the Military Committee, General Harald Kujat (ret.), criticized that Turkey is trying to drag NATO into a Syrian war for its own parochial interests.
In an interview on “Anne Will” ARD-TV broadcast, and stating almost the same words that Davutoglu said on CNN, General Kujat said “look, that’s what Turkey wants to provoke [NATO Article 5]. Therefore it keeps saying ‘we can’t do that alone, others have to participate.’”
In face of then ISIS massacre of Kobane Kurds, he continued bluntly: “Turkey basically wants to drag NATO into this situation because the actual goal of Turkey is to neutralize Assad…ISIS’s actions and what’s happening to the Kurds are subsidiary…and it has to be clearly said that an ally who behaves like this doesn’t deserve the protection of this alliance, an ally who doesn’t intervene for protection in a such tragic situation doesn’t deserve protection himself.”
The former NATO general recommended removing Patriot batteries from Turkey to send a signal, and in August 2015 they were removed.
Regarding the Patriot missiles, German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau said: “Politically, the mission did not serve anything. The Turkish government is more concerned with its own interests, not with those of the alliance.”
On whether Turkey could invoke the mutual defense clause if its military were deployed to Syrian territory to set up a buffer zone, General Kujat said “if Turkish troops were to conduct operations in Syria without Syria’s permission and without a UN mandate and then be attacked this would never amount to a casus foederis (Article 5).”
Thus, in the absence of a NATO Article 5, would Turkey be able to acquire a UNSC mandate for a buffer zone/no-fly zone similar to Libya?
That would likely depend on whether the buffer zone is really for humanitarian purposes.
Aleppo as Turkey’s 82nd province?
On a practical level, the buffer zone in Syria’s Aleppo region is an illusive haven. By definition a safe zone maintains neutrality in a military conflict, but the positioning of armed opposition groups in the safe zone will turn the area into a prime target.
Moreover, claims that on 10 August Turkish military forces entered the planned zone in Syria along with the Sultan Murat Brigade, which is composed of Turkmens, presents a worrying picture when taken in conjunction with pro-government media that proclaimed Aleppo as the 82nd province of Turkey.
According to Hurriyet Daily, Erdogan is using the Turkmen card again especially when nationalist sentiments are on the rise, so that “any attack on our Turkmen brothers in the safe zone could easily spark a military clash and drag Turkey into war.”
However, the article ended “do we really want to fight for an 82nd province?”
And this is a serious issue for consideration not just for the people in Turkey, but for US and coalition forces that are considering a Syrian “buffer zone.” Do they want to risk their troops lives and fight for Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions for an 82nd province?
Moreover, do they want to be complicit in carving out a safe haven in northwest Syria for Erdogan’s Army of Conquest that consists of militant groups from Central Asia, China and Russia?
Safe haven for Eurasian militants?
According to the director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdul Rahman, there are at least 2,000 fighters from Chechnya, Dagestan and other Caucasus regions operating with Al Nusra, and “they are concentrated in Idlib, Aleppo, and Latakia provinces”—where Erdogan has called for a buffer zone.
Counterterrorism experts also reveal Chinese Turkistan Islamic Party, Uzbek Imam Bukhari Jamaat and Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad have planted themselves in Idlib. In Aleppo, a May 2015 USAID report on Central Asian fighters in Syria, referred to three Uzbek militant groups allied with Al Nusra as “Aleppo Uzbeks”: Imam al-Bukhoriy Brigade, Uzbek Brigade of Jabhat al Nusra, and Seyfullah Shishani Jamaat.
The Syrian army has been fighting these militants on behalf of Central Asian states, China and Russia—all members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). However, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now weakening regime forces with supplies of anti-tank TOW weapons.
As such, a UNSC resolution for a buffer zone is unlikely from China and Russia, as it would provide a base for their militants from which to launch attacks on the homeland.
Without NATO and UNSC backing, Turkey would stand alone against these Eurasian states’ interests to deny Syria as a haven for their militant groups. Any escalation of the conflict would only draw in these Eurasian powers to fortify ground forces that are helping them fight their militants—that means the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian army.
Going forward, Turkey—still a dialogue partner of the SCO—should seek a reset with the members, and work with other world powers to de-escalate the conflict and restore regional stability. Vienna II and G-20 meeting may be good places to start.
Article first published in Asia Times on November 14, 2015.