As Kurds gain in Syria, Turk­ish gov’t pon­ders mil­i­tary ac­tion


As Kur­dish rebels in north­ern Syria rack up wins against the Is­lamic State group, Turk­ish media is abuzz with talk of a long-de­bated mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion to push the Is­lamic mil­i­tants back from the Turk­ish bor­der — a move that will also out­flank any Kur­dish at­tempts to cre­ate a state along Tur­key’s south­ern fron­tier.

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan was to chair a Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil meet­ing Mon­day, only days af­ter he vowed to pre­vent the Kurds from es­tab­lish­ing a state in Syria.

Pro- gov­ern­ment news­pa­pers are rife with pur­ported pro­pos­als, rang­ing from loos­en­ing the rules of en­gage­ment to give Turk­ish troops a freer hand to fire into Syria, to a tanks-and-troops in­va­sion aimed at oc­cu­py­ing a 110-kilo­me­ter (70-mile) long, 33-kilo­me­ter (20-mile) wide buf­fer zone.

The burst of tough talk has an­a­lysts “scratch­ing their heads about what to make of all of this,” Aaron Stein, an as­so­ciate fel­low at the Lon­don-based RUSI think tank, said in a Twit­ter mes­sage.

In a tele­phone in­ter­view, Stein said the new talk of ac­tion was due in part to dra­matic Kur­dish gains in Syria, where rebels have scored a se­ries of vic­to­ries against Is­lamic State, most no­tably in the bor­der town of Tal Abyad. That key transit point is not far from the IS’s Syr­ian power base of Raqqa.

The cap­ture of Tal Abyad opened ways for Kurds to con­nect their strong­hold in Syria’s north­east to the once-badly iso­lated bor­der town of Kobani — which fa­mously re­sisted a months-long Is­lamic State siege — and per­haps even the Kur­dish en­clave of Afrin in Syria’s north­west. That would cre­ate a vast, con­tigu­ous zone of Kur­dish con­trol, which Tur­key fears will stir up sep­a­ratist sen­ti­ment among its own Kur­dish mi­nor­ity.

Ankara is also ea­ger to shake ac­cu­sa­tions that it is turn­ing a blind eye to the Is­lamic State group — es­pe­cially af­ter photos were pub­lished show­ing the grin­ning fa­nat­ics within a stone’s throw of the Turk­ish bor­der dur­ing the bat­tle for Tal Abyad.

Stein said the pic­tures were em­bar­rass­ing.

“You had ISIS fight­ers walk­ing within 10 feet (3 me­ters) of the bor­der, smil­ing and wav­ing at Turk­ish bor­der guards,” he said, us­ing an acro­nym for Is­lamic State. “That gives the im­pres­sion of com­plic­ity. It’s very dam­ag­ing to Ankara.”

But the idea of mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion across the bor­der re­mains un­pop­u­lar in Tur­key. Any fight­ing in ur­ban ar­eas would al­most cer­tainly mean heavy ca­su­al­ties. And even a more lim­ited in­ter­ven­tion, such as ar­tillery or air strikes, could send even more Syr­i­ans flee­ing to­ward Tur­key, which is al­ready bur­dened with the world’s largest num­ber of refugees.

Any fight­ing in Kur­dish ar­eas of Syria risks de­rail­ing the peace process with Kur­dish rebels in south­east­ern Tur­key, over­turn­ing a key achieve­ment of Er­do­gan’s lead­er­ship and po­ten­tially spread­ing vi­o­lence across the coun­try.

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