Turkey will consider any incursion west of the Euphrates River in northern Syria along the Turkish border by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as well as any attack north of Idlib by Syrian regime forces, as violation of a “red line.” The government made the decision at a National Security Council (MGK) meeting on June 29, media reports say.
The MGK released a statement saying that “developments in Syria were comprehensively discussed, possible threats were evaluated, and possible additional security measures were stressed,” following the meeting.
The Turkish government aims to convey a strong message to both ISIS and the PYD. Any move by these groups west of the Euphrates River, where the city of Jarablus is located, was declared a red line by Turkey because the river has become a natural border between ISIS and its nemesis PYD in northern Syria after Tal Abyad was captured by the Kurdish militia from ISIS on June 15.
The PYD is considered by Turkey to be the Syrian affiliate of the outlawed PKK. Both ISIS and the PKK are recognised as terrorist groups by Turkey.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin stated that, “It is not healthy to interpret the necessary measures which aim to ensure our border security as ‘Turkey is entering a war’,” speaking on Tuesday at a press conference in Ankara.
Kalin also emphasised that Turkey has never used the terminology of a “buffer zone,” but spoke about a need to establish a no-fly zone and a safe zone in the area for civilians. Turkey’s stance on this issue remains unchanged and these possible moves are continuing to be discussed with its allies, he added.
The Turkish government has been alarmed by both ISIS’ moves near the Syrian towns of Azaz and Mare and the enlargement of northern Kurdish enclaves under the control of the PYD along its long border line with Syria.
ISIS reportedly recently attacked an area between Azaz and Mare, which are situated in northwestern Syria, which controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This move by ISIS came after it lost Tal Abyad to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militant wing of the PYD, which was able to join the Kobane and Jazira “cantons,” along the Turkish border by capturing the district.
ISIS already controls a zone between Jarablus and Mare, also along the Turkish border.
In the worst case scenario for Turkey, as it becomes further threatened by ISIS between Azaz and Mare, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could ask for assistance from the YPG in order to protect the areas of northwestern Syria they hold. This might then allow the Kurdish group to extend its reach to Afrin, another isolated Kurdish “canton” declared by the PYD in the far west of Syria.
The PYD needs to overrun Jarablus and pass west of the Euphrates to reach the Azaz-Mare region if this scenario is to be realised. Then, the PYD might take full control of the Turkish-Syrian border, leading to fears in Turkey that it might end up neighbouring a hostile Kurdish state which could use its control of the border to undermine Turkey’s internal security.
These are reasons, Turkey has laid down a red line regarding advances by either ISIS or the PYD west of the Euphrates. According to the Turkish daily Milliyet, if the PYD undertakes any operation past this point the Turkish Armed Forces will carry out a cross border operation without providing notice.
If ISIS captures the area it will able to take control of the Oncupinar border crossing with Turkey, and could get closer to reaching another border crossing at Cilvegozu. Therefore, Turkey would virtually lose control of its border to two hostile militant groups.
In addition, the fighting involved in capturing the crossings as well as any ethnic cleansing or massacres by the two groups could lead to a new wave of refugees from Syria to Turkey, another concern which is also behind Turkey’s decision to issue the second red line regarding any attack by the Assad regime attack north of Idlib, the Milliyet report said.
It is feared that if the Syrian regime launches an attack north of Idlib there will be another huge flow of refugees into Turkey, which already hosts more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees who fled the violence in their country after the escalation of the civil war there.
Turkey and the US-led anti-ISIS coalition forces appear to have differences in terms of priorities in northern Syria, despite mostly sharing the same interests. Turkey is concerned by the PYD’s activities in northern Syria along the Turkish border as much as it is concerned with the actions of ISIS and the Assad regime.
However, the US-led coalition is highly supportive of the PYD’s activities against ISIS, which has been heavily bombarded by the coalition in coordination with attacks by the PYD.
US State Department Spokesman John Kirby at Washington’s daily press briefing on June 30 reacted to Turkish demands by saying that, “The Defense Department has made it clear that they don’t believe there’s a need for that at this time, and that the use of coalition military assets in trying to effect a zone like that would entail an awful lot in terms of logistics, time, resources, and effort.”
When asked about the difference between a buffer zone and a safe haven Kirby stated that, “In military terms, I’m not sure that there’s technical definitions for either one. I think it depends on the context in which you’re using it. I don’t know that there’s much – it depends on how you define it and how you want that area defended and protected.”
However, he also said, “They would have to decide how they would both make the decision, defend the decision, and implement it. That’s a national decision that they would have to speak to.”