The Origins of Turkey’s Buffer Zone in Syria


Rumors are everywhere about some sort of a buffer zone inside Syria along its border with Turkey. The notion of a buffer zone has a deep history rooted in Turkey’s shifting foreign policy towards Syria – from close partner to intractable enemy. In order for policymakers and observers to weigh the likelihood of a buffer zone or “air exclusion zone” to succeed, this history must be understood from Turkey’s perspective.

After being elected in 2002, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) prioritized Ankara’s relationship with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad. The AKP’s approach to Syria has been defined by the work of Ahmet Davutoğlu – Turkey’s former foreign minister and current prime minister. The former academician was eager to use Turkey’s unique geography to expand Turkish influence in the Middle East. Syria, Davutoğlu argued in his book Strategic Depth, was historically connected to Anatolia, with Aleppo being a part of Ankara’s “natural hinterland” because of its historic links to the Anatolian towns of Kahramanmaras, Gaziantep, and Urfa. These areas once made up the Ottoman Empire’s Aleppo vilayet.

Turkey, Davutoğlu has argued, should act as a “center state,” adopting geopolitical theories first posited by Nicholas J. Spykman, Sir Halford John Mackinder, Alfred Mahan, and Karl Haushofer to more closely cooperate with its neighbors. These scholars divided the world into zones, known as the “heartland,” comprising much of Central Asia, and the “rimland,” which extended from Western Europe through the Arabian Peninsula to Asia. During the Cold War, Davutoğlu observed, these areas were under the influence of either the United States or the Soviet Union, thereby preventing the expansion of Turkish influence in its near abroad.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was thus perceived by Davutoğlu as an important opportunity for Turkey to extend its sphere of influence into these vitally important areas. To this end, Ankara incorporated elements of these theories into a policy of “Strategic Depth,” which argued that Turkey should act as a “center state” and re-connect with areas in its former hinterland via the blurring of the region’s borders that were artificially drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I.

To implement this vision, Turkey relied heavily on its relationship with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, despite his embrace of Ba’athism (which Davutoğlu viewed as a faux political ideology), incongruent with the region’s history of governance because of its reliance on secular nationalism for political legitimacy. Davutoğlu, in 1999, wrote that political legitimacy in the Middle East has historically stemmed from the concept of Dar al Islam­ – the idea of shared religious identity inside both Muslim majority and non-Muslim majority states. Thus, in his book Strategic Depth, he argued that Ba’athism was destined to fail and would eventually be replaced with a form of government more consistent with the “Muslim masses.”

As such, the AKP described its Syria policy – and its close cooperation with Bashar Al-Assad – before the start of the protests in Syria as being akin to West Germany’s policy of ostpolitik during the Cold War, in reference to Bonn’s normalization of relations with East Germany. For much of the AKP’s time in office, the AKP lauded its relationship with Damascus. Davutoğlu went as far as to describe it a striking success of his “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

Revolt in Syria

In 2011, the spread of the Arab revolts from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Bahrain, Yemen, and then on to Libya challenged Turkey’s policy of ostpolitik. In every case but Egypt, the AKP favored the maintenance of the political status quo and did not aggressively call for regime change, choosing instead to wait until it was all but assured that the leader would be toppled before choosing to work with the local party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (the AKP’s own roots are in Turkey’s Islamist movement, and there is a great deal of ideological sympathy between the AKP and Muslim Brotherhood as a result).

And so it went in Syria. In April 2011, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Davutoğlu Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s intelligence chief, and other members of the cabinet, met to discuss the turmoil in Syria and Bashar Al-Assad’s use of force to quell growing street protests. At this meeting, the AKP agreed that Assad’s violence was untenable. But the alternative—civil conflict—would be far worse for Turkish security, owing to a potential influx of Syrian refugees and the effect any power vacuum could have on the Turkey’s Kurdish issue and fears over the nationalist ambitions of Ankara’s sizeable Kurdish majority. To this end, Erdoğan dispatched Davutoğlu—and then Fidan at a later date—to try and convince the Syrian leader to make political reforms. This would include lifting the ban on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and for its leadership to return from exile.

These efforts failed. In September 2011, Turkey severed its ties with the Assad regime and began to work more closely with Qatar to create a viable Syrian opposition in exile. This policy was premised on Turkey’s support for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who, according to Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, promised to pressure the AKP to set-up a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, in return for a pledge of loyalty from defecting Syrian Army officers. These officers later formed some of the first rebel brigades in the Free Syrian Army. Turkey first floated the idea of a buffer zone in September 2011, before formally endorsing the proposal in November of that year.

The proposal was intended to create a safe haven for the rebels inside Syria, similar to that of the city of Benghazi during the Libyan revolution. Ankara envisioned moving the Syrian political opposition into this zone, so that the group could bolster its legitimacy with the Syrian armed opposition, whilst also beginning the task of setting up a government in waiting to rapidly assume power once Assad was toppled. At the time, Turkey was of the opinion that Assad would fall from power within six months to a year.

This assessment, in turn, prompted Ankara to stop short of calling for a no fly zone over all of Syria and instead push for a “buffer zone” – a concept that Ankara never adequately defined. This policy was broadly reflective of Davutoğlu’s April 2012 assertion that as a matter of “principle,” the AKP would “[oppose] foreign intervention because this region’s future has to be decided by its people.”

As such, Turkey did not formally advocate using air power to induce regime change, but rather argued for an intervention that differed in scope to the military action taken in Libya, which eventually resulted in the use of direct air support to assist with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. To be sure, the Turkish proposal would have necessitated U.S.-led airstrikes on regime targets, but they would have ideally been limited in nature—and perhaps defined by something akin to the “point defense” (the protection of a specific place) mission later used to defend Erbil in June 2014.  The United States, however, remained hesitant and refused to endorse the Turkish supported policy.

A more aggressive policy

In 2012, Ankara changed its tune, and pushed for a much larger intervention in the Syrian conflict. Turkey urged its preferred rebels to march on Aleppo. During that summer, Ankara was convinced that the United States would intervene in the conflict after the November election freed President Obama to take a more definitive stand on the conflict. Ankara’s optimism, however, proved to be short-sighted; and President Obama chose to refrain from using military force inside Syria.

In any case, after the U.S. election – and then after the Syrian regime’s 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack – Turkey began to advocate for the establishment of a more comprehensive no fly zone. In May 2013, Erdoğan and Fidan met with President Obama in White House, where they made their case for Turkish backed U.S. military action. Erdoğan advocated for a U.S. air campaign —supported by allied countries, including Turkey—that would strike regime targets and strongholds, forcing Bashar from power. Ankara quietly argued that the introduction of U.S. air power could successfully pressure Assad to step down in favor of another figure who, without “blood on his hands,” could govern a fractured Syria. This approach guided the AKP’s approach ever since and is currently a point of convergence with the United States about the future of Syria. The United States refused to intervene, choosing instead to chide Turkey for its lax border policy and its history of support for certain rebel groups like the salafist Ahrar Al-Sham and, in certain cases, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra.

The disagreement over the use of air power has since grown more acute. The rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) and its offensive in Iraq resulted in a circumscribed Western air campaign targeting ISIL but governed by restrictive rules of engagement.  While the United States prioritized the destruction of ISIL, Ankara argued that the group is akin to a “mosquito” that has taken refuge in Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian “swamp.” Thus, in order to kill the mosquito, one must “drain the swamp.” As such, Ankara conditioned its participation in direct military action inside Syria and Iraq on the expansion of air strikes to include regime targets.

Turkey argues that the current mission is too focused on Iraq and that the current air campaign in Syria indirectly empowers Assad, rather than create the conditions for a more comprehensive solution to the Syrian civil war. Ankara believes that the “degradation” of ISIL will allow for the Assad regime to move into areas vacated by the group; thus priming conditions for the defeat of the Turkish-supported rebels. In turn, Turkey has once again touted the buffer zone as a key piece for what it believes is its “comprehensive strategy” to address the ISIL threat in Syria and Iraq while providing a haven for its preferred anti-Assad rebels.

In October 2014, Ankara released a map of an updated proposal for a safe zone along its border. During that same month, Davutoğlu indicated Turkey’s willingness to introduce ground troops into Syria, albeit under strict rules of engagement (directives that governs how a military will use force, or operate in a conflict zone), presumably linked to the enforcement of the safe zone by American air power. The plan, however, was a bit puzzling.


First, the map did not include Aleppo, which Ankara has subsequently made clear should be protected from regime attacks. Second, the map included Kobane—a Kurdish-majority town on the Turkish-Syrian border. Kobane nearly fell to ISIL in October, before increased coalition air strikes and an emergency U.S. airdrop of weapons and medical aid (which Turkey did not support) helped stop the ISIL advance. Turkey chose not to intervene in the still ongoing battle for Kobane, owing to the fact that the town has been governed and fought for by the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—the sister party to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The Kurdish challenge and the buffer zone

The PYD has controlled three non-contiguous areas in Syria (Afrin, Kobane, and Jazira, known collectively as Rojava) since July 2012. Since then, Turkish authorities have  kept their border gates with these areas closed. Ankara has also pressured the PYD to join the Syrian opposition, ostensibly as part of a broader collation of Kurdish political parties, supported by Masoud Barzani– the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, who Ankara prefers to other Kurdish leaders. Thus far, the PYD has refused, citing the dominance of Turkish supported Islamists among the Syrian rebellion and its discomfort with Barzani’s politics.

In response to the Kobane crisis, the AKP subtly changed tactics and sought to link the issue to its on-going negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan – the imprisoned leader of the PKK. As part of the peace-process, which Turkey has pursued intermittently since 2009, the AKP has demanded that PKK fighters in Turkey disarm, or withdraw to Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK has done neither, owing to the slow pace of negotiations with the Turkish state. In turn, AKP officials quietly began to argue that if the PKK had disarmed, the Turkish government would not have had a problem with some sort of limited Kurdish autonomy in Syria. However, so long as the PKK refused to disarm, the threat posed by a possible resumption of Turkish-Kurdish hostility prevented cooperation with the PYD.

Ankara’s latest argument is a bit disingenuous, owing to the fact that in October 2014, Fidan is reported to have told Salih Muslim, a high level PYD official, that in return for Turkish support, the group must end its bid for autonomy in Syria, distance itself from the PKK, and integrate its forces with those of the Free Syrian Army. These demands are untenable for the group.

Ankara’s plan, therefore, envisioned the fall of Kobane and then the incorporation of the city—which would presumably entail the ousting of ISIL via Turkish supported military means—in to its proposed safe zone. Third, Turkey left the areas surrounding the ISIL-controlled town of Tel Abyad out of its proposal, which—like Kobane—is near the Turkish border, but included the ISIL-occupied and controlled town of Jarabulus. As such, Ankara was sending mixed signals about its intent to combat ISIL directly or to allow for air strikes to degrade the group in certain areas. In the cases of Jarabulus and Kobane (assuming the town fell), for example, the plan suggested direct combat for Turkish troops, backed by coalition air power, to uproot and force out ISIL. However, in Tel Abyad, which is sandwiched between Kobane and the Kurdish controlled canton of Jazira, no such military action was envisioned. Ankara neither explained these discrepancies, nor outlined its proposed rules of engagement for Turkish troops, with  Erdoğan choosing only to say that ground forces are needed to defeat ISIL.

This plan was contingent on a fundamental shift in the tactics adopted by the United States and the Arab coalition partners operating over Syria. Ankara does not have the capability to independently enforce a large contiguous no fly zone; thus it requires the United States to help sustain – and ultimately protect – any proposed area. At the time of writing, the United States has rejected Ankara’s request on numerous occasions, going as far as to say in October “that the American-led coalition, with its heavy rotation of flights and airstrikes, has effectively imposed a no-fly zone over northern Syria already.” Against this backdrop, John Allen, Brett McGurk, and Vice President Joe Biden have travelled to Turkey to more closely coordinate the American strategy with that of Turkey’s. After each meeting, both sides tout the convergence of interests in defeating ISIL, but U.S. and Turkish officials admit that the buffer zone issue remains a key sticking point.

Can Washington and Ankara agree? 

Early this month, U.S. officials leaked details about a recent discussion about “the creation of a protected zone along a portion of the Syrian border that would be off-limits to Assad regime aircraft and would provide sanctuary to Western-backed opposition forces and refugees.” The proposal calls for the creation of an “air-exclusion zone” that differs little from the current status quo and does not envision any strikes on Syrian air defense systems. Instead, the defense of the zone would rely on a warning sent to Assad to stay away from coalition aircraft operating along the border and, in the event of a violation, the use of long-range air launched weapons to strike Syrian aircraft. The proposal, according to the Wall Street Journal, does not include the city of Aleppo and would rely on Turkish soldiers to identify targets for aircraft. (It also does not address artillery and the exact location of this zone has not yet been released.) However, there are concerns about whether these soldiers are up to the task and have the requisite training to act as joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) – soldiers on the ground that have the training to call in precision strikes to support ground forces.

The AKP, in turn, was surprised by the leaks with one senior researcher at a government-aligned think tank, to wonder (in a private conversation with me last week) whether the timing of the leak about the zone was intended to embarrass Erdoğan before a high-profile meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In any case, the proposal, as envisioned, does little to address Ankara’s key demands. President Erdoğan has recently weighed in on the leaks, saying the only areas of convergence with the United States are about a proposed program to train 2,000 rebels in Turkey, but that “no commitment has yet been given by the coalition powers, particularly about a no-fly zone and safe zone.”

To be sure, Erdoğan is stretching the truth: Turkey has been supportive of a phased transition in Damascus that envisions the maintenance of certain regime figures since the summer of 2011. In this regard, Turkey and the United States do share a similar point of view about the future of Syria. However, on the key issue of the no-fly-zone, the two sides remain at odds. The coalition, it appears, is taking steps to side-step the Turkish veto on the use of its bases and has begun to move more aircraft to bases in Jordan and Kuwait, as well as inside Iraq to support the anti-ISIL mission.

If Ankara agrees to the “air defense zone” it would represent a serious concession on the part of the AKP. Moreover, Ankara remains wedded to its own Syria policy and it is unlikely that the AKP would give up its most important bargaining chip — the usage of air bases in Turkey — for a plan that the AKP does not support. This suggests continued disagreement about the no fly zone in the near future.


Aaron Stein is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He blogs at Turkey Wonk and Arms Control Wonk. Follow him on Twitter @aaronstein1.

Photo credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann