Turkey’s Buffer Zone: no man’s land
The deal between Turkey and the United States to create a buffer zone in northern Syria has been engineered as an aggressive front against the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group. Airstrikes from Turkish and U.S. planes, which may now depart from Turkish air bases, are to provide air support for moderate rebels within this territory. While Turkish assistance in the fight against ISIS has been achieved, this alliance is not unified to coordinate a strategy to remove ISIS. Both the United States and Turkey are more focused on defending the zone from particular groups than enabling nearby Syrian opposition battalions to remove ISIS.
Turkey’s main objective seems to be destabilizing Syrian and Turkish Kurds’ strength near the Turkish border, more than fighting the Syrian Arab Republican Government or ISIS. Turkish officials have claimed that allowing the YPG to gain territorial control in the buffer zone is out of the question, and it will take aggressive action to prevent the YPG from crossing that “red line.” Similarly, Turkey and the PKK have re-established aggressive patterns of violence in Northern Iraq and in Turkey. Turkey’s adamant anti-PKK and PKK-affiliate (YPG) stance now has ramifications on possible allegiances between the United States’ and the YPG. Ultimately, Turkey’s priorities seem focused on preventing the YPG from advancing into the buffer zone.
To be clear, it is a grand over-simplification to say that the United States is untroubled about which groups control the buffer zone. Of course the United States is concerned; however the focus has been on keeping “radicals” out of the zone. The U.S. has affirmed this by repeatedly claiming the objective to train individually vetted “moderate rebels” to fight ISIS. By early July of this year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirmed that only 60 recruits had made it through the vetting process. The dilemma that the United States faces is not about which individuals it can trust to be “moderate,” but instead which groups nearby have the capacity to control of the buffer zone and are not allied with ISIS.
The co-founder of People Demand Change, Sasha Gosh-Siminhoff, spoke to al Arabiya (above) about which battalions in Aleppo province were “best placed to enter [the buffer zone] and take control.” Mr. Gosh-Siminhoff gives a general overview of the groups with the operational capacity to hold the ground. These include: Liwaa Al-Tawhid, the Noureddine Zenki Brigade, Fastagem Kama Omert Union (FKO UNION), and Forsan Al-Haq. Their positions are advantageous, as they have fighters battling ISIS at the frontlines in Azaz and further south against Assad’s forces. Another option is the Shams Shamal Brigade, which has fighters from towns to be included in the buffer zone (Jarabulous and Manbij) and would mean local groups would defend their own territory from ISIS. This is significant because local groups know the terrain and the people better than fighters from other districts. While these groups could provide an advantage against ISIS if given the air support, ultimately, neither the United States nor Turkey are focused on enabling the opposition against ISIS or Assad in this deal, but instead are playing defense for their prospective interests.