More than 8,000 Syrians have amassedin a tent city in Turkey's Hatay province and, with Syrian President Basharal-Assad's violent crackdown showing no signs of abating, thousands more areexpected to follow suit. In response, Turkish forces may establish a militarybuffer zone on Syrian territory to accommodate the steady influx of refugees.
According to the Washington Post, some degree of cross-borderactivity by Turkey has likely been cleared by Syria. In particular, plans todeliver food, clean water, and medicine into Syria appear to be underwayfollowing Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's meeting with Assad's special envoy, former armychief of staff Hassan Turkmani.
Further unilateral action by Turkey to create aformal buffer zone would involve sending Turkish soldiers across the Syrianborder to establish a "safe haven" for Syrian refugees.
Establishing such a zone without Syrian permissionwould represent a significant shift from the ruling Justice and DevelopmentParty's "zero problems" foreign policy. "Once Turkey establishes a formal buffer zone,it's hard to see how Turkish-Syrian relations remain strong," said Nuh Yilmaz,the director of SETA Foundation at Washington D.C., a think-tank dedicated toregional and international issues concerning Turkey.
Turkey established a similar buffer zone in Iraqiterritory during the first Gulf War, when nearly 500,000 Kurdish refugeespoured across the border, and made preparations to do so again in 2003.
"Turkey has said it will not stop the flow ofrefugees. The only way to manage that is to establish a buffer zone," SonerCagaptay, the director of the Turkish politics program at the WashingtonInstitute for Near East Policy, told FP. "Ankara wants to see this managed in away that doesn't land in Turkey's lap."
Cagaptay added that Turkey's failure to convinceAssad to embark on significant reforms in the wake of the unrest has caused "acertain amount of frustration" in the ruling party. But other analystssuggested that Turkey's fear of spoiling its relationship with the Assad regimemay prevent it from establishing a buffer zone just yet.
"Thebest outcome for Turkey is for Syria to change its behavior," said Sinan Ülgen,a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. "So setting up the bufferzone is not the objective, but rather part of the contingency plan."
Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations atIstanbul's Bilgi University and a columnist for the Turkish daily Sabah had a similar take. "[Turkish PrimeMinister Recep Tayyip Erdogan] speaks with Bashar all the time. I think theTurkish government would like to keep the hapless Bashar at the helm," he said.
But on one issue, all analysts were in agreement:The Syrian debacle will necessitate a reevaluation of Turkey's foreign policyin the Middle East. In Libya, Turkey was slow to side with the rebels and haspaid a price in soft power as a result. As Cagaptay put it, the question isnow: "Will this happen in Syria? Are they betting on the wrong horse? Will theydo the right thing now to gain leverage with the people?"
Right now it looks like they have money on Assad towin, place, or show.
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