The risks of a buffer zone in Syria

Setting a buffer zone may put Turkey’s decision makers in a more trying situation.

Turkish soldier on Syrian border 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish soldier on Syrian border 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When gunfire from the Syrian border killed two refguees in a Turkish camp,  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded with anger and threats against Syria. Sporadic gunfire has since been reported in various Syrian villages close to the border with Turkey, and a significant Turkish troop deployment was reported near the camp where an estimated 25,000 Syrians dwell.
Turkey has utilized these recent incidents to renew its strong rhetoric against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. Such rhetoric has been seen in the past among American, French, and Turkish officials, which included discussions of a buffer zone in Syrian territory. That said, factors remain which complicate the realization of such an operation.
First, Turkey is unlikely to push for a buffer zone without wide international or NATO support. Erdogan’s recent statement that he would request NATO assistance if Syria's offensive continues is an indication that he does not want to conduct such an operation alone. Article 5 of the NATO alliance treaty states that an attack against one member is considered an attack against all member states. NATO would have justification for entering Syria if incursions continue, and in contrast with a United Nations led force, which is unlikely offer support due to a Chinese or Russian veto, NATO would likely be better able to initiate the buffer zone.
That said, the European members of NATO would also likely be hesitant to support to such a move for fear of harsh ramifications from Russia, who controls a majority of their gas supply. In 2009, Russia indirectly cut off 60 percent of gas exports to Europe following a dispute with Ukraine. With such precedent, a similar scenario cannot be ruled out here, especially considering Russia's military and economic interests in Syria - reason enough for Moscow to back Assad before Istanbul.
Secondly, Iran’s Shiite leadership continues to support Assad's Alawite tribe, and both parties likely pose concerns to Turkey. Iran’s rising influence in Iraq may empower Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants, along with those already thought to be associated with Syrian intelligence agents. After the institution of a buffer zone, the militants' momentum could in fact pose a direct threat in the form of increased militant activity on Turkish soil. This could spur discontent among Turkish citizens, especially if militant activity reaches the major urban centers of Ankara and Istanbul.
It is widely presumed that a humanitarian buffer zone in Syrian territory would require Turkish military support, which Syria would likely see as a provocation, and perhaps even a declaration of war. Even if the zone is expanded to only a few kilometers inside Syria, it could spark a direct confrontation with Syrian troops and PKK militants, or create an even larger refugee crisis, potentially increasing the size of the buffer zone.
It is needless to say that sparking a regional war would not boost Erdogan’s popularity. Ties with neighboring Iran, Syria, and Israel have deteriorated over the last year – relations that do not jibe with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “Zero Problems Policy."
For the reasons stated above, along with a general hesitation among foreign powers to intervene in Syria, Turkey stands in a tenuous situation. While Erdogan would like to continue holding the lead role in solving the Syrian crisis, the consequences of establishing a buffer zone are likely to deter such an action from occurring in the near term.
The writer is an Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.