The Great Wall of Turkey? Ankara imagines DMZ w/ Kurds, ISIL

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

So I am going to tell you a story about Turkey, Syria and the United States. It may or may not be true. Its details may or may not have happened, though there is reason to think they did. It is a story. The point is to see if the story makes sense of what has appeared in the news but which has not been explained.

The Obama administration decided last summer to begin bombing raids against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in Syria, along with some allies such as the UK. Bombing raids like that don’t really amount to anything, though, without some infantry or guerrilla force on the ground to take advantage of them. Moreover, it wasn’t much good to destroy Daesh assets around Raqqa if they could just import more via Turkey through the checkpoint for Raqqa Province, Tel al-Abyad.

Daesh was hungry to control all of Raqqa Province, including the Kurdish canton of Kobane in the far north, which would give them yet another checkpoint crossing with Turkey, for bringing in men and supplies. So on 19 September, 2014, Daesh struck at the city of Kobane, provoking 120,000 panicked Kurds to flee over the border into Turkey.

President Obama called up Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in my story, and said, “Tayyip, we need your help to defend Kobane.”

And Tayyip replied, “Mr. President, if we strengthen the PKK terrorists in Kobane on the border with Turkey, that will be a future security problem for my country when they hook up with the fighters in Qandil in Iraq and start intensive car-bombing of my cities like Diyarbakr in eastern Anatolia.”

[The strongest political force in Kobane is the far-left Democratic Union Party, with its paramilitary, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Although it is technically a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the US and Turkey consider a terrorist organization, it is autonomous and does not have a line of command to the PKK.]

So President Obama goes to Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, and says, Erdogan won’t help fight Daesh in Kobane because he is afraid of the leftist Kurds there. Can you give us some nice, conservative, bourgeois fighters to defend the city?” The US military has strong relationships with the Peshmerga from Iraq War days and knows how to work with them.

And Barzani is happy to oblige. And Erdogan is pressured to acquiesce. So Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan are allowed to pass over Turkish territory to Kobana and help fight off Daesh.

But the reinforcements are not enough and Kobane could still fall. So a t the beginning of this year Obama orders very intensive bombing of Daesh convoys and assets moving toward Kobane, and that, in conjunction with the YPG and Peshmerga guerrillas on the ground, defeats the Daesh assault by late January of 2015.

But Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh have learned something important from Kobane. The Kurds can and will fight if you give them good aerial support, unlike much of the Iraqi army. The successful defense of Kobane gives them an idea. What if you could unite the Kurdish canton of Jazira in the northeast with the Kurdish canton of Kobane, using Kurdish fighters and allied air power? You’d have a solid band of Kurdish control all across northern Syria, depriving Daesh of its border checkpoint, Tel al-Abyad and strangling the movement of reinforcements and resupply from Turkey.

Meanwhile, pleas to Erdogan to use the Turkish military to cut off Daesh have fallen on deaf ears. Erdogan is furious about any strengthening of the Syrian Kurds on his border, but just seems mysteriously unconcerned about having Daesh on the same border. Some charge that he is anti-leftist but soft on Muslim radicalism. Some say that Daesh has cells inside Turkey and has threatened to destroy the country’s tourism industry if the Turkish government does not cooperate.

Obama, Carter and Welsh decide to go ahead with their plan, and let Erdogan suck on it, in late May and early June, to have YPG fighters (and maybe there were some Peshmerga who came over to help) take Tel al-Abyad and hook up with Kobane, cutting Daesh off. They are also careful to include some Sunni Arab auxiliaries, the “Euphrates Volcano” forces, which are presumably the far eastern kernel of a rebuilt Free Syrian Army covertly supported by the US. The plan succeeds!

So Erdogan is absolutely livid. He denounces this development as a future threat to Turkey, even though he had not denounced Daesh as such.

The obvious thing for Daesh to do now is establish a new smuggling route from the Turkish border behind Aleppo down to Raqqa. But that area east and north of Aleppo is controlled by the rebels of whom the US is suspicious of having Jihadi tendencies Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fath), a group of fundamentalist Sunni Arab militias closely allied with the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), an al-Qaeda affiliate. So ISIL has to attack the other radical Sunni rebels, which it has done many times before. The US is in the awkward position of bombing Daesh in support of what it fears are radical fundamentalists allied with al-Qaeda. But Washington bites the bullet and does bomb Daesh, and the fundamentalist rebels chase it out of these northern positions in Aleppo province.

So President Obama goes back to Erdogan and says, I want Turkey to block Daesh from infiltrating Syria along the Turkish border from Azaz to Jarabulus, north of Aleppo and to either side. Otherwise we’ll use the Kurds again to accomplish this. We can’t be dependent on al-Qaeda linked forces like this.

The Turks really had not wanted to get involved militarily in Syria, though they were happy to let supplies and men through to the rebels, without inquiring too closely into who exactly the rebels were. But now there was a prospect of a new Syrian-Kurdish state, Rojava, bordering southeastern Turkey. And unlike Iraqi Kurdistan, this state would be ruled by a PKK branch or ally, evoking for Turkish leaders the horrors of the dirty war of the 1980s and 1990s when 30,000 died in eastern Anatolia. (I’m not saying that YPG is necessarily dangerous to Turkey in that way, only that Ankara fears it could whip up secessionist and far left sentiments in Turkey’s southeast).

So on Sunday Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announces that Turkey will build a fence along its border with Turkey and might send troops in to secure a 25-mile strip on the Syrian side, as a buffer zone protecting Turkish territory from the fighting to its south.

Then the Turkish military uses its contacts in the more liberal Turkish press to deny any such invasion plan.


What do the Turkish chiefs of staff propose? They would station troops along the Syrian border between Jarabulus and Azaz, that is, behind Aleppo province, picking up the slack where the Kurdish line at Kobane ends. The would not go in and establish a buffer zone but would secure the border from infiltration and would use artillery and aerial bombardment against any guerrilla group, especially Daesh, that came into the 25-mile deep buffer zone. In short, they would create a DMZ with Daesh and other fundamentalist rebels to the south. This DMZ would have the effect of cutting Daesh off decisively from resupply via Turkey, since the Kurds hold the border territory from Kobane east to Jazira and the Turkish military holds it west from Kobane to Azaz. Likely if this is done, Daesh will be strangled even more quickly than would otherwise be the case, and Turkish-backed groups like Ahrar al-Sham will benefit (it is fundamentalist and tightly intertwined with al-Qaeda, but mainly focused on Idlib and Aleppo provinces).

Davutoglu and Erdogan clearly want the buffer zone to extend east along the border of Syrian Kurdistan (“Rojava”), but the generals appear to be pushing back on this idea.

The generals are using Hurriyet to signal that no new government has been cobbled together yet after the recent elections, and that Davutoglu therefore does not have the sort of popular mandate that would justify him going around invading other countries. They clearly also fear a backlash from Russia, China and Iran if they send troops into Syria with no UN Security Council resolution allowing the use of force in that country, and in the absence of an attack by Daesh on Turkey. That is why they propose a DMZ with artillery at the ready– if Daesh violates it by attacking Turkey, then they would be justified in using deadly force in self-defense.

Turkey has so far escaped most of the severe disruptions of the Syrian war, even though it has a long border with that country. Erdogan and Davutoglu are now bringing it into the fray as a belligerent, with possibly deadly consequences for social peace and its economy.

But it isn’t even clear what if anything will actually be attempted, given military reluctance and the lack of an actual government in Ankara. If anything of this nature is attempted, certainly it will change the dynamics in the region.

So that’s the story.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

NRT English: “Turkey prepared for every contingency in Syria, PM says”

15 Responses

  1. I was following that in various regional outlets there. It made me wonder how the Mustafa Kemal outlook that has made the military fairly secular would come into play.

    When I first saw the generals said no, I was glad they are around to rein Erdogan in.

    The whole thing was jaw droppingly far fetched and sophomoric on Erdogans part and he came to heel quickly when swatted by the rolled up newspaper.

    The honor of the nation is too important for a greasy right wing politician to squander on some tantrum.

  2. Since this is just a story my guess is the next chapter is the Tishrin dam. The Euphrates Valley is a big long lake from near the Turkish border to the Taqba dam a couple of dozen miles from Raqqa. The crossing at Tishrin Dam is the difference between a long detour from the border at Jarabululus and an awful and brutal drive the long way around Lake Assad to resupply Raqqa. I think its the last crossing the Kurds have not cut off yet.

    Even if Turkey does not close the border the Tishrin Dam is another game changer.

    Extra bonus points: if the dam is secured and in good repair I think it generates more than 600MW of electricity.

  3. sorry ,,you are missing something ..the zone that turkey wants to create is the only strip of land that s not under Kurdish control at the moment by occupying this strip turkey wants to stop kurds have all the Syrian border to themselves,,basically turkey is invading Syria to stop the Kurds to control the whole Syrian border,,their aim is not to stop ISIS

    • Turkey has been exposed once again !! Erdogan is dreaming of his own Caliphate an never helped anyone but his OWN Grandiose Plan to be the NEW SULTAN in the Region. Go Kurds and long live KURDISTAN .

  4. Juan –

    Thank you. Very informative. Your maps don’t show where Tel Al-Abyad is. Searching for it on Google Earth returns “no such place.” Searching Tal Al-Abyad lands you in with a pin in an empty piece of desert with no structures or paved roads visible at GE resolution. Could you append another map showing where it is?


  5. Thomas Pierret

    Jaysh al-Fath doesn’t operate in Aleppo. Operation room Fath Halab doesn’t include Nusra (which operates independently there).

  6. It is interesting to see that Juan Cole and Western media never mention the role of the Muslimbrotherhood in the Syrian militias.They talk about Al Nusra, IS, but never mention the Muslimbrotherhood which will also have a big share within the Anti-Assad fighters.Maybe Jaysh el- Fath is mainly a Muslimbrotherhood militia which gets support by the new detente between Turkey, Saudiarabia and Qatar.Erdogan wants a neoosman empire covering Damaskus, Northafrica, Jerusalem and Mekka.The Muslimbrotherhood will be his main supporter for such an neoosman ummah.And probably Jaysh el-Fateh si the instrument to get it in Syria.

  7. Doesn’t Turkey have some sort of shrine to Attaturk behind the Syrian border? With Turkish soldiers guarding it, and ISIS(?) leaving it alone as a part of their tacit truce? I wonder if it will be used a justification for some kind of military action by Turkey.

    • There was a rather dramatic Turkish foray into Syria a month or two ago to retrieve that old Ottoman tomb (nothing to do with Atatürk), which was on a Turkish enclave island, some 20-odd miles inside Syria. A footnote, as I recall, from Sykes/Picot. Anyway, the Turks were in and out in a matter of hours and re-interred the guy in territory adjacent to the border.

  8. I know what you mean, but I think you slipped up a little with, “So on Sunday Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announces that Turkey will build a fence along its border with Turkey.” [Syria] should be but isn’t quite the automatic referent of “its border.” Also, I realize everyone hates Erdogan for good reasons, but countless central governments do anything to crush separatists. In spite of Erdogan, Assad, and al-Maliki, Kurdistan has never been stronger, but don’t expect any ruler to embrace separatists, even non-violent ones. Turkey also has the most refugees in the world right now (this is not an exaggeration), so even though it has not been undermined like Iraq, it remains deeply affected by Syria’s disaster. Far more than the US, whose preferences in the region should never be the leaders top concern.

    • Good point. I’ve heard estimates of up to 3 million Syrians in Turkey, which Recep Bey has gone out of his way to accommodate in terms of social services, student access to universities at the expense of native citizens, etc. This, in a nation of roughly 75 million.

      Recep’s history and commitment to Islam is long and open to be judged. He was jailed back in the 1990’s and while he may be some flavor of Islamist, he couldn’t be further away from having a Salafist vision (IMHO).

      I read today there are hints of a coalition forming, following the repudiation of the AKP in the recent elections. If this becomes a relationship viable enough to allow for pursuing the objective best interests of the country, short of empowering anyone’s particular vision, it would be almost too much to hope for.

      Turkish waters run deep. Due to its geopolitical positioning as well as its cultural nuance, it’ll be hard to overestimate its regional potential. Especially if Turkey chooses be become more active—in its own self-interest.

      This what kills me about the US, and comments from various quarters about Turkish policy. None of these characters has the wherewithal to second-guess what Turkey is choosing to do and why, and its ridiculous to confuse it’s best interests and those of the US, of all people. Aside from this posting’s scenario, which isn’t that bad, the comments I generally see are appallingly ignorant.

  9. ** [The Current Situation in Syria with Turkey] **

    1. The Turkish Army is amassing tanks on the border and wants to invade Northern Syria (Western Kurdistan / Rojava) to keep the Kurdish forces from connecting the Afrin Canton with Kobanê . Once YPG & YPJ are able to liberate and connect the Kurdish areas, then Turkey won’t have border access to re-supply their proxy army which is ISIS. The Kurds already cut off Turkey’s main route to supply ISIS last month directly north of Raqqa, which is why Turkey knows they must act urgently now before the Kurds turn and push West.

    2. The Turkish Govt is also arming al-Nusra and other jihadist “rebel” fighters in NW Syria with the hopes of: attacking Assad’s forces, creating a future barrier for the Kurds of Rojava and the KRG to having sea access to sell their oil, and opening up another potential supply line to ISIS if they are unable to do so with their own invading army between the Kurdish forces. However, Assad’s forces currently have that route blocked.

    3. If Turkey did enter the ISIS-controlled areas of Rojava (Northern Syria) there of course wouldn’t be any fighting between them and ISIS, as the latter are essentially the personal contra force for the Turkish Govt against the Kurds. ISIS would simply voluntarily vacate those areas for the Turkish army to move in and take their place.

    4. The only obstacle to Ankara’s plan may be that the PKK has stated they will restart their guerrilla war within Turkey if the Govt invades their Kurdish allies in Rojava. Additionally, the Syrian Govt in Damascus along with their allies of Iran and Russia have also declared that they would assist the Syrian regime if Turkey took such illegal action and invaded. So the potential for a World War III flash point where the U.S. & NATO (of which Turkey is despicably an ISIS-arming member) are drawn into a larger conflict is clear. Insanely, in that scenario the U.S. & NATO could find themselves defending Turkey & ISIS against everyone else involved.

    ^ P.S. Only the U.S. could find themselves in a place where they are simultaneously bombing ISIS on behalf of YPG, bombing Assad on behalf of ISIS, and arming Turkey enabling them to attack the YPG. The only winners would be the bomb makers.

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