x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Turkey readies Syrian buffer zone plan

Ankara has discreetly begun preparations for border zone on the Syrian side to protect refugees from bloody fighting.

GUVECCIKOY, TURKEY // Turkey has discreetly begun preparations for a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border between the two countries amid fears that hundreds of thousands could flee the fighting in Syria.

One official said about 500 specialised soldiers had arrived in the area recently to look at military options for the buffer zone and the handling of more refugees.

Some residents said they had seen high-ranking officers of the Turkish military inspecting the border region. Others said newly-established no-go areas in some sections of the border were also linked to preparations for the buffer zone.

The observations are in line with Turkish media reports that Turkey's military, intelligence service and foreign ministry were drawing up plans.

The purpose of a buffer zone would be to give Syrians a chance to flee the fighting without having to cross the border, as Bashar Al Assad's forces continue the brutal repression of an uprising against his regime and the threat of full-scale civil war grows.

But it is unclear whether countries such as Turkey would be willing to enforce such a zone without consent from the Damascus regime and risk a military confrontation.

Veysel Ayhan, an analyst at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara, said yesterday the preparations showed Turkey wanted to be ready for an emergency, but there were clear conditions for a buffer zone.

One was a sudden, massive wave of refugees from Syria, "not just ten thousand, but a hundred thousand" that would overwhelm Turkey's capabilities, Mr Ayhan said.

Another condition would be international support for such a move, he said.

"If there is a situation like in Iraq after the Gulf War, nobody will object," Mr Ayhan said. Several hundred thousand Kurds from Iraq fled to Turkey after a campaign by Iraqi government forces in 1991.

He said a possible buffer zone would not be a Turkish project, but an international one, with the possible involvement of Nato and Arab states.

A Turkish official confirmed contingency planning to deal with a potentially much bigger wave of refugees from Syria, but stressed no plan for a buffer zone was in place "at the moment".

But Mr Ayhan said the situation on the ground could change swiftly. "It all depends on the fighting in Syria," he said. "Within a week, hundreds of thousands of people could come over."

In the run-up to a meeting in Istanbul on April 1 of the Friends of Syria, a group of western and Arab countries trying to pressure the Syrian government into halting its crackdown on opponents, Turkey said it was considering building a buffer zone on Syrian soil.

"Buffer zone, security zone: there is work being done on all of those," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said last week. "Many alternatives are under discussion."

Ankara is concerned that the number of refugees from Syria could reach proportions that would make it impossible to care for all the Syrians inside Turkey.

About 16,000 Syrians have found shelter in Turkish refugee camps, but Ahmet Lutfi Akar, the head of the Turkish Red Crescent, has suggested up to half a million could cross the border.

The fears of an increase in the numbers crossing into Turkey come as the fighting in Syria moves closer to the border.

Mehmet Karabas, a farmer in the Turkish village of Guveccikoy overlooking the border, woke up at about 3am recently to the sound of a strange noise.

It was not the usual sound of gunshots often carried over on the night wind from Syria. This time, Mr Karabas, 22, heard the voice of a man begging for his life.

"For the love of God, don't shoot me," the man cried in Arabic. Mr Karabas ran down the hill towards the border that winds through the valley below, "but there was nobody there".

Villagers in Guveccikoy see and hear signs of the conflict in neighbouring Syria almost daily. The nightly explosions and gunfire have come so close that bullets from Syria hit homes in Turkish villages.

"I have become used to it," said one elderly villager.

tseibert@thenational.ae