Ty McCormick FOREIGN POLICY
More than 8,000 Syrians have amassed in a tent city in Turkey's Hatay province and, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's violent crackdown showing no signs of abating, thousands more are expected to follow suit. In response, Turkish forces may establish a military buffer zone on Syrian territory to accommodate the steady influx of refugees.
According to the Washington Post, some degree of cross-border activity by Turkey has likely been cleared by Syria. In particular, plans to deliver food, clean water, and medicine into Syria appear to be underway following Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's meeting with Assad's special envoy, former army chief of staff Hassan Turkmani.
Further unilateral action by Turkey to create a formal buffer zone would involve sending Turkish soldiers across the Syrian border to establish a "safe haven" for Syrian refugees.
Establishing such a zone without Syrian permission would represent a significant shift from the ruling Justice and Development Party'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 to regional and international issues concerning Turkey.
Turkey established a similar buffer zone in Iraqi territory during the first Gulf War, when nearly 500,000 Kurdish refugees poured across the border, and made preparations to do so again in 2003.
"Turkey has said it will not stop the flow of refugees. The only way to manage that is to establish a buffer zone," Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told FP. "Ankara wants to see this managed in a way that doesn't land in Turkey's lap."
Cagaptay added that Turkey's failure to convince Assad to embark on significant reforms in the wake of the unrest has caused "a certain amount of frustration" in the ruling party. But other analysts suggested that Turkey's fear of spoiling its relationship with the Assad regime may prevent it from establishing a buffer zone just yet.
"The best 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 buffer zone is not the objective, but rather part of the contingency plan."
Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University and a columnist for the Turkish daily Sabah had a similar take. "[Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an] speaks with Bashar all the time. I think the Turkish 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 policy in the Middle East. In Libya, Turkey was slow to side with the rebels and has paid a price in soft power as a result. As Cagaptay put it, the question is now: "Will this happen in Syria? Are they betting on the wrong horse? Will they do the right thing now to gain leverage with the people?"
Right now it looks like they have money on Assad to win, place, or show.