Four years in to Syria’s civil war and same ideas keep coming up. This week, buffer zones were back in the news as they have been periodically since they were first floated in 2012 as to way to protect the civilian population from Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But the timing of the latest announcements—a one-two punch with first Turkey, now Jordan revealing plans to carve out zones inside Syria—suggests an effort by regional actors to send a message to Washington, D.C.: With or without the U.S., it’s time to intervene in the conflict.
“I find the timing of it really interesting,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who studies Shia Islamist militias in Syria. “First the Turks have come out with this, then Jordan comes out with it. And there’s been this similar talk in certain segments of D.C. that are, let’s say, not very pro-Obama in terms of how Syria policy has been executed.”
It’s difficult to predict whether this time around the talk of buffer zones will lead to concrete action—if so it would be the first time since the war started in 2011 that foreign armies established an official presence inside Syria. But the rhetoric has intensified.
Turkey announced plans to send 18,000 soldiers into Syria. That announcement was amplified by Jordan’s, which came out the next day in a Financial Times story that reported the Jordanian plan was “backed by key members of the international coalition against Isis.”
One key member of the coalition that definitely has not backed the plan is the U.S.
A State Department official, speaking the same day the story about Jordan’s planned buffer zone broke, downplayed the possibility to reporters, saying there was no “solid evidence” for it and citing “serious logistical challenges” in creating them.
Turkey and Jordan, on Syria’s northern and southern border respectively, have a common interest in erecting buffers zone. Both countries have absorbed large refugee populations fleeing the war and both are threatened by the growing presence of hostile actors on their doorsteps, be they jihadists or Kurdish nationalists. A buffer zone is an area controlled by military forces, either national armies or those of allied rebels inside Syria that would allow the Turks and Jordanians to exert more influence inside Syria and prevent people and materiel from passing over the border. But those are old concerns that have been expressed by Turkey and Jordan before. The resurgence of plans for intervention suggests that new developments—namely the Assad regime’s deterioration and the success of Kurdish forces fighting ISIS—may be changing the calculus in Ankara and Amman.
Turkey, which first announced plans for a buffer zone, is threatened by the growing power of Kurdish groups who have had a series of recent victories against ISIS forces in Syria.
“I am saying this to the whole world,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech last Friday, “We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria.” He was referring to the increasing autonomy exhibited by the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD), an armed and U.S.-backed Kurdish affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey (and the U.S.) consider a terrorist organization. The PYD has made no mystery of its intention to establish “Rojava,” an independent statelet of Syrian Kurdistan tantamount to what the Kurds of northern Iraq have maintained for decades. Impressive military gains in Syria by the PYD’s paramilitary force, the YPG, have rattled Ankara more than ISIS has.
The YPG’s recent victories against the jihadists in key areas like Tal Abyad have given the PYD control over a stretch of territory along Turkey’s long southern border. Turkey’s government has responded by accusing the Kurds of ethnic cleansing of Arabs, which the YPG has denied. Nevertheless, Turkey’s noises about intervention to stop the Kurds are being taken seriously. According to the Beast’s Thomas Seibert, the 18,000 soldiers deployed would control “a strip of territory up to 30 kilometers deep and 100 kilometers long that is held by ISIS.” The planned buffer zone “stretches from close to the Kurdish-controlled city of Kobani in the east to an area further west held by the pro-Western Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel groups, beginning around the town of Mare” and would be “secured with ground troops, artillery and air cover.”
Officially, the buffer zone is Turkey’s way of containing ISIS but the timing is “no surprise,” according to Smyth. “After all the reporting on Turkey allowing ISIS, al Qaeda, and anybody and their mother over the border—now they’re getting involved to protect the areas where the PYD and YPG are operating.”
“I don’t think Turkey likes the Islamic State,” former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told The Daily Beast, using another name for ISIS. “I think they view it as a threat, but they view the Kurdish separatists as a greater threat to their territorial integrity.”
That explains Turkey’s motivations. But where did Jordan’s buffer zone scheme come from, given that the Hashemite monarchy has an entirely different set of political concerns?
According to the FT, “the main aim of the operation will be to create a safe area on Jordan’s border, stretching across the southern Syrian provinces of Deraa and Suwayda, and including the city of Deraa.”
Ford is less convinced Amman will make good on this proposal. “I’m not sure about Jordan, to be honest,” he said. “But I think it’s probably the Jordanians’ way of saying to the Americans, ‘We will want your help.’”
Jordan’s announcement is a response to “the Assad regime’s perceived weakness,” argued Smyth. “It’s also a push against the Iranians.” Tehran is the biggest international backer of the Assad regime and has deployed its own military forces and loyalist militia groups in an attempt to prop up its faltering ally. Jordan, meanwhile, backs the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has fought both the Assadists and Iranian proxies. “Iranians are essentially running the battlefield in southern Syria and they’ve failed miserably,” said Smyth.
So Jordan’s buffer zone might be one way to to exploit Assad’s weakness to push back against creeping Iran hegemony. Or it could be Amman’s way to putting the Obama administration on notice that after four years of inaction, including an unenforced “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, America’s regional allies have decided to resolve the crisis in their own way.
Indeed, two of Syria’s neighbors sending the same signal to Washington in the space of two days doesn’t mean that Turkey and Jordan want the same thing from the U.S. It does, however, suggest that both are using the international press to signal their exhausted patience, much as the Saudis did when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi intelligence bigwig, still ran Riyadh’s Syria file.
“When you see it in concert part of me wants to say that they all met in a room and said, ‘Let’s do it, what the hell,’” Smyth said. “But maybe it actually sends a much stronger message to Washington about how regional developments are playing out and shows that [America] doesn’t pull all the strings.”