The price of Turkey’s involvement against ISIS

Turkish “sources” told the Hürriyet Daily News that the deal giving the US and its coalition partners the right to use Incirlik Air Base to stage manned sorties against ISIS in Syria (they were already allowed to use it for unmanned missions) includes an agreement with the US to establish a relatively small safe zone in the northwestern part of Syria:

The 90-kilometer line between Syria’s Mare and Cerablus will be 40 to 50 kilometers deep, sources told daily Hürriyet, while elaborating on the consensus outlined by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, following a cabinet meeting on July 22.

However, sources avoided saying whether such a zone would be broadened in the future.

This security line will prevent radical groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front from gaining the mentioned land.

U.S.-led coalition jets will provide security over the land “when needed,” carrying out “attacking or exploration” flights, sources said.

Jets belonging to Turkey, which is not a member of the coalition but lends support to the anti-ISIL fight, will also be allowed to take similar flights “when needed,” the sources added.

Hürriyet calls this a “no-fly zone,” but it appears to be more than that (which is why I used “safe zone” above. Assad’s forces would be prohibited from entering that zone, but Turkish and American aircraft will also be tasked with keeping ISIS, and Nusra (although how they’re going to separate Nusra fighters out from everybody else is beyond me), out of the area on the ground, and there’s even talk that Turkish artillery units will be used for this task.

As concessions go, this isn’t a big one for the Americans to make in exchange for the use of Incirlik. Turkey would likely have preferred a much bigger safe zone, maybe one that extended along the entire Turkey-Syria border, including (especially) areas that are under Kurdish control at the moment. Even this small zone does, however, effectively give Turkey a chance to block the so-called “Kurdish corridor project,” the effort to extend Kurdish control over northern Syria all the way to the Mediterranean, the next stage of which would have gone through Syria’s Jarabulus (Cerablus in the quote above). But crucially, unless the zone is expanded it will not allow Turkey to interfere with areas already under Kurdish control, unless the Kurds decide to pick a fight with Turkey for some reason. Of course, Ankara is still prepared to use force against its own Kurdish adversaries if it sees fit (see below).

The emphasis on protecting this zone from ISIS and Nusra, not just Assad, is also important for the US, because it gives moderate rebels and refugees in the region a sanctuary of sorts. So this actually isn’t a bad idea for the US even if you leave the use of Incirlik out of the equation.

Or, hey, maybe none of this will actually come to pass; so far it’s only anonymous “Turkish sources” who are saying it will happen, so it’s still a little sketchy at the moment.

What isn’t sketchy is that Turkey is openly going after ISIS now, because of the Incirlik/safe zone negotiations with the US and/or as retaliation for the Suruç bombing. Turkish aircraft carried out strikes on three ISIS positions inside Syria today and Turkish police arrested almost 300 people suspected of having ties to either the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or ISIS. It’s obviously not unusual for Turkish police to arrest people with alleged ties to the PKK, but it’s pretty novel for them to go after people suspected of being involved with ISIS. Later, as if to emphasize that it’s not ignoring them, Turkey struck a few PKK positions in northern Iraq via air and artillery, even as it was engaging in a second night of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

Juan Cole argues that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is keeping an eye on the possibility of snap elections, which look increasingly inevitable given the fact that no party has been able to form a governing coalition in the aftermath of the last elections in June. The Suruç bombing threatens to paint AKP as weak on national security and even in cahoots with ISIS, and the fact that the target there was a rally in support of Kurds in Kobane threatens AKP’s ability to maybe win back the votes of some religious Kurds from the predominantly Kurdish (but secular and leftist) Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in snap elections. Confronted with the strong possibility that it might actually lose votes in a snap election as compared to its performance in the initial vote, AKP has taken a hard turn toward confronting ISIS.

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