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The Turkish intervention: Buffer zone or partition plan?

Turkey's 'buffer zone' policy is doomed to fail

After four years of watching the war tearing apart two of its neighbors, Syria and Iraq, Turkey appears ready to enter the fray. Newspapers across the world spoke of Turkey’s intention to create a buffer zone, an idea Turkey has proposed all along while America has remained opposed.  Now, however, the two sides seem to have reached an agreement. While neither side would send ground troops, the emerging details talk of an ISIS-free buffer zone. Taken at a face value, the agreement seems simple and executable. But a closer look at the positions of the various factions and the conflicting priorities of the involved states, suggests that there is much to this agreement than is reported in the media.

There are two primary reasons why a Turkish-American agreement cannot revolve around a buffer zone without a larger strategy for the conflict in Syria.

Conflicting ideologies

The first reason is that the Syrian war, which excruciatingly stretches to its fifth year, is fueled by irreconcilable agendas. Unlike a traditional war where two camps fight for influence and resources, there are numerous parties with different goals. In addition to the Assads, who rule the country since 1970 and wish business to continue as usual, there are the Kurds whose separatist desire has been rekindled and inspired by the status of their brethren in Iraq. Standing against both aspirations are the fragmented, but not negligible, secular nationalist Syrians who want a secular state; Jabhat al-al-Nusra, which seeks to create an Islamist state; and finally, the Islamic State which zealously fights to establish its supra-national Islamist caliphate.

Of course, the complexity of the Syria war doesn’t end there. Foreign meddling has compounded it further. The war has drawn various foreign actors whose agendas are not only conflicting with each other but also with those of most factions inside Syria. While the Russians, the Iranians and their Lebanese satellite, Hezbollah, back the Syrian regime, the Americans, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Jordanians and the Turks have different clients on the ground and hope to see divergent outcomes. While Saudi, Qatari and Turkish differences have recently narrowed, largely as a counter measure to the rising Iranian influence, the three countries’ differences with the Jordanians and Americans have widened, not shrunk.

It was fear that brought the Qataris, Saudis and the Turks together. The rise of the Islamic State and the significant expansion of the Iranian reach, the three nations found in the al-Nusra front a strong and (compared to ISIS) less controversial Sunni force to support. This fresh support allowed al-Nusra recently to drive the Syrian armed forces and other factions out of the Idlib governate, creating a contiguous territory, which stretches from the Turkish borders all the way to the outskirts of Hamah.

Separately, Turkey has provided assistance to the Syrian Turkmen whose brigades have fought against Assad and Kurdish militias. A primary motivation for this Turkish support is to curtail the rise of a Kurdish state along its border. This has been a key concern for Turkish policymakers for decades.

Even Erdogan’s party, AKP, which has pursued a reconciliatory policy toward Turkish Kurds, much to the outcry of Turkish nationalists, feels betrayed by the outcome of recent elections. That Erdogan managed to anger the nationalist Turks but failed to please conservative Kurds (who voted instead for HDP) has made it increasingly harder for him to justify his appeasement strategy vis-à-vis the Kurds. To make matters worse, the comportment of Kurdish militias - America’s much-touted ally in the war on ISIS - after their recent advances didn’t help allay the fears of the Turks or the Arabs.

Assad's military ceding ground

In the course of the war, each warring faction has managed to score certain gains that cannot be ignored by outside actors. Currently, the Syrian regime is left with a stretch of land in the western provinces, ascending from Damascus along the Lebanese borders and in parallel with the coastal line to the Turkish borders. Its presence in the middle and eastern provinces is now circumscribed to a few cities, such as Hums, Hamah, Hasaka and Dir al-Zur. The government forces have been completely pushed out of Dar‘a and Idlib.

Government’s losses have been gains for a plethora of other factions, but the chief beneficiaries are: 1) al-Nusra front which controls Idlib and stands at a striking distance from strategic locations in Hamah and Aleppo and 2) the Islamic State which controls Raqqa, vast areas in Dir al-Zur, and the majority of the province of Hums. ISIS also continues to possess key border positions with Iraq and many Syrian’s oil and gas fields.

These facts make it impossible to imagine a scenario where the American and Turkish interests could be both served by a simple buffer zone, even if this zone is carved primarily at the expense of ISIS. It is still not clear who would fight on the ground and hold freed territories. The Turks would not drive out ISIS to create a safe zone for Kurdish militias. On their end, the Americans would not agree to a simple deal where ISIS’ presence is replaced by that of al-Nusrah, the likely candidate to fill in the gap should the Kurds be excluded by Turkish intervention.

The question which then rises is: If a buffer zone is not plausible, then what is behind the Turkish intervention and the new found America confidence in the war against ISIS? In the absence of solid data, one could only theorise.

After a year of fighting ISIS with limited success, the Americans feel defeated enough to push any deal that would ensure curtailing ISIS and keeping Assad temporarily in power to prevent Syria from becoming a Sunni Islamist powerhouse.

Keeping Assad means partitioning Syria. Until recently that was unacceptable for many. But war fatigue has led many Syrian factions to lose hope in any happy ending to the war. Even the Iranians, who could theoretically spend their newly unfrozen cash to support the regime, not only have spent billions in Syria and achieved very little, but they have enough trouble closer to home in Iraq against a more entrenched arm of ISIS. Turkey is burdened as well by an ever-growing cost of its refugee’s hosting program.

With the patience and resources of regional players wearing thin and with a growing fear the Islamic State would become a permanent fixture of Middle Eastern politics, these players became open to compromises.

The Arab press was abuzz in recent weeks about messages relayed to Damascus by the Americans through their Iraqi allies. While the details are sketchy, it is evident that the subject was the war on ISIS and the inability of the Iraqis and their Iranians benefactors to send further reinforcements. As a part of their new sober and more responsive warfare to ISIS’s strategic planning, the Americans have handed Assad a few gifts by disrupting ISIS’s takeover of the city of Hasaka and by softening its siege of the airbases in Dir Zor and T4. Saudi jetfighters took part in these efforts as well.

Assad wouldn’t have missed these gestures and he maybe reciprocating. His recent admission that the army has weakened and can only secure certain areas at the expense of others perfectly fit within a policy of accommodating a partition scheme. 

Of course, the whole scheme hinges on the ability of the allies to defeat the Islamic state, and on each party’s ability to ensure that only trusted hands take over the territories which ISIS loses. While the opening of Incirlik base, the participation of Turkey in the aerial bombing, and the increasingly wide and strategically wise bombing campaign by the Americans will increase the likelihood of ISIS’s weakening, it remains challenging for Turkey and its Sunni allies to assemble an effective Syrian force without relying on al-Nusra. In the interest of defeating ISIS, the Americans may have to temporarily live with that prospect.

If the plan succeeds, the main losers would be the Kurdish forces, which the US would have to sacrifice to appease Turkey. Evidently, the main winners would be Jebhat al-al-Nusrah and Bashar al-Assad who would in the minimum buy some time to bolster their capabilities as they watch their enemies crashed by someone else.  

- Ahmed Meiloud is a PhD student at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. His research interests include studying the various movements of political Islam across the Arab World, with special focus on the works of the thinkers, jurists and public intellectuals who shape the moderate strands of Islamism. He contributed this article to

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye

Photo: Members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) inspect a crater reportedly caused by an air strikes by Turkish warplanes on 29 July in the Qandil mountain region, PKK's headquarters in northern Iraq (AFP)

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