Erdogan Plans Syrian ‘Safe Zone’ as Military Campaign Widens

  • Turkish offensive to extend to IS stronghold 30 km from border
  • Turkey will not allow Kurdish corridor in northern Syria

Turkey announced plans to create a safe zone in Syria the size of the Grand Canyon, a campaign that could be one of the biggest foreign military interventions in its modern history.

The Turkish military, which entered Syria last month to push Islamic State and Kurdish separatists from the border area, will expand its offensive to clear a 5,000-square-kilometer (1,931-square-mile) sanctuary, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday. The operation is liable to escalate its conflict with both of those armed groups and is set to be Turkey’s largest incursion since it poured troops into northern Iraq in the 1990s to attack strongholds of its own autonomy-seeking militants.

Turkey’s goal “is likely to require the deployment of thousands of Turkish soldiers in Syria for years and increase risks of a possible military confrontation with Syrian forces,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said by telephone on Monday.

Turkey is broadening its role in its neighbor’s conflict as a brittle cease-fire there appears to be crumbling. Repeated violations of the week-long truce, mediated by the U.S. and Russia, have thrown into question a plan to coordinate U.S. and Russian attacks against Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked militants, whose implementation was conditioned on seven days of calm.

Syria’s state-run SANA news agency reported the country’s military as saying the ceasefire ends on Monday, and that terror groups had used the truce to re-mobilize fighters. There were 300 rebel violations of the ceasefire, the military said, according to SANA.

Turkey is also trying to assert greater influence in Syria after confrontations with both the U.S. and Russia there. After Moscow intervened militarily last year on behalf of the Syrian government, Erdogan was forced to soften his hard line against President Bashar al-Assad’s involvement in postwar politics. He’s also had to swallow U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish rebels whose separatist aims he deplores.

Turkey, the rebels’ main lifeline and host to about 3 million Syrian refugees, has long advocated establishing a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border to help contain the human flight and stop Islamic State rocket attacks on Turkish towns. Clearing Islamic State from border areas west of the Euphrates river could seal the Turkish frontier and allow allied forces to speed up planning of a major offensive on Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

Shifting Kurds

Another declared aim of the Turkish operation in Syria was to push Syrian Kurds affiliated with Kurdish separatists in Turkey away from border areas. Turkey has declared areas west of the Euphrates river off-limits to Kurdish forces in Syria, and on Monday, Erdogan served notice that Turkey will not let Syrian Kurds link areas they control along his country’s 911-kilometer border with Syria.

He criticized Syrian Kurdish fighters for not retreating from Manbij after taking it from Islamic State, signaling that Turkey might force them to withdraw.

The Kurds’ objective is to unite areas under its control in northwestern Syria with other Kurdish areas in Turkey and Iraq “to reach to the Mediterranean,” Erdogan said.

Backing Rebels

The Turkish leader said his country’s offensive inside Syria has already cleared “terrorist groups” from an area of about 900 square kilometers. The campaign will extend to the Islamic State-stronghold of al-Bab, which lies about 30 kilometers from the border, he said.

Turkey’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict started days after a suicide bomber said to be linked to Islamic State killed at least 54 people at a wedding in the border city of Gaziantep. So far, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army has been fighting on the front line to clear Islamic radicals and Kurdish separatists from the proposed safe zone. minimizing the casualties among Turkish soldiers.

Erdogan reiterated his call to train and equip pro-Western rebels fighting in Syria and to declare a no-fly zone to protect the safe haven, where he said Turkey can build communities to settle refugees. About 120,000 refugees are already living in camps run by Turkey’s pro-Islamic Humanitarian Aid Foundation, or IHH, just inside the Syrian border.

The U.S., which is leading a coalition fighting to eject Islamic State from Syria, has been cool to the notion of a safe haven protected by international warplanes, saying it presents significant military, financial and humanitarian challenges.

“We have been planning to build houses and social facilities in a safe zone in northern Syria,” Erdogan said. “It has not happened until now. But I hope we can do so from now on.”

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