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Analysis: Turkey’s 'Safe Zone' in Syria Will Remain War Zone

Turkish army tanks hold positions near the border with Syria, in the outskirts of the village of Elbeyi, east of the town of Kilis, in southeaster Turkey, July 23, 2015.
Turkish army tanks hold positions near the border with Syria, in the outskirts of the village of Elbeyi, east of the town of Kilis, in southeaster Turkey, July 23, 2015.

The so-called Islamic State appears to be preparing for a Turkish onslaught as Turkey goes forward with plans to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria. That safe zone may be no less dangerous than the war zone, according to Mustafa Alani, the director of defense and security at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.

“Turkey is going to face some major difficulties in imposing control over this very large area,” Alani said, “an area which is witnessing a lot of fighting and a lot of conflict between different groups.”

Complicating the conflict, he added, will not uproot the Islamic State, which controls most of the towns and cities in the area, particularly if the assault comes exclusively from the air.

The armed groups in the proposed safe zone include IS and other militants vying for power, as well as Kurdish fighters who are, like IS, considered terrorists by Turkey. Previously, IS and the Kurds have fought bitterly, Alani said.

But if Kurdish militants perceive Turkey as a greater threat than IS, the two groups’ will have, if not an alliance, their interests allied. “These two groups could fight Turkish control over this area together,” he added. “The challenge is formidable.”

As Turkey intensifies its fight against Islamic State more generally, opening up military sites to the U.S.-led coalition against IS, the overall result could be a marked loss for IS, Alani explained. Turkey and Syria share a 900-kilometer border that is frequently used by militants to collect new recruits and supplies.

“This will add pressure on ISIS,” Alani said. “I think this could produce some change on the reality on the ground.”

Preparations for assault

Residents of Karkamis, a town in Turkey across the border from IS-held Jarablus, have said the Islamic State appears to be preparing for an assault. As some families flee the Turkish side of the border, they say they’ve heard IS has even threatened to attack them.

“I have friends and colleagues on the other side who say ISIL has placed mines all along the border area and in the town. It will be very difficult to clean up Jarablus," Karkamis shopkeeper Mustapha Karatas told Reuters.

All the preparation, however, may not be necessary for the Islamic State, according to Amman-based political analyst Labib Kamhawi. Turkey has been at war with Kurdish fighters for decades, he said, and the fight against IS could be an excuse for Turkey to beat the Kurds out of Syrian border areas.

“The presence of ISIS in the north is only marginal for the security of Turkey,” he said, “compared to presence of the militant Kurdish activities.”

Even if Turkey could clear Islamic State out of northern Syria, Kamhawi added, it may not harm the group. With affiliates in several countries IS has become more of a concept than an organization, he said. Any militant anywhere can fight in the name of the so-called Islamic State.

“ISIS is a very convenient excuse,” Kamhawi said, “for everybody.”

Some material for this report came from Reuters