JOOST – Turkey and the divided Syrian opposition

Turkey and the divided Syrian oppositionWill Turkey and the US ever agree on the creation of a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border? Nobody knows, not even in Ankara and Washington it seems. Each time the two NATO partners appear to be getting closer to a deal — as reported, most recently, last week in several prominent American media — officials representing the administration of US President Barack Obama deny all allegations.

On Wednesday US Secretary of State John Kerry described the speculation on a safe zone, again, as andldquopremature.andrdquo But he also said Turkey and the US will keep discussing different scenarios so, maybe, one day Ankara and Washington will both get what they want: a safe zone along (part of) the Turkish-Syrian border to protect refugees and certain opposition forces that would be andquotoff-limitsandquot to aircraft from the Syrian army (Turkey) and the use of Incirlik Air Base for warplanes and armed drones to strike at the forces of the Islamic State (IS) on the other side of the border (US).

Letand#39s for the sake of argument suppose that day of compromise will come soon and Turkey gets the blessing to occupy part of Syria, protected by American planes but with no US boots on the ground. Has anybody in Ankara thought about what should happen then? More specifically: With which Syrian opposition forces will the Turkish army cooperate to shelter the refugees and fend of attacks by the Syrian army or the IS? Are there enough reliable partners in Syria, willing and able to help Turkey run a vulnerable border area and, when that works, start a well-coordinated offensive to push back the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad? Or will Turkey have to do all of those things on its own?Ever since the IS took center stage, many have expressed their doubts about the military capacities and future potential of the mainstream Syrian rebels, squeezed out of business, it seemed, between the well-equipped jihadists on one side and an invigorated Syrian army on the other If that is true, and, for instance, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), always supported by Ankara, does not amount to anything anymore, would that not lead to a nightmare scenario for Turkey: isolated in a buffer zone without anybody on the ground who can really help?One week ago, an answer to all these questions seemed to present itself.

In Gaziantep, several dozen Syrian rebel groups got together and founded the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained, it was perhaps the most-broadly-based rebel unification attempt yet.

For obvious reasons, it excluded IS and the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, and, unfortunately, also the Kurdish Peopleand#39s Protection Units (YPG). But for the rest, all dominant armed groups in northern Syria were present: Those that are part of the FSA, groups linked to the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ones fighting under the umbrella of the Salafi-inspired Islamic Front.

All these groups, according to Lund, depend on funding from foreign states (Turkey being one of them), have a significant presence at the Turkish border and have distanced themselves, to a certain extent, from anti-Western jihadists.That is why the RCC has the tentative backing of Turkey, Qatar and some pro-Saudi factions.

It looked a serious attempt to eventually create a standing RCC army that could fight both the IS and Assad, on the condition, of course, that unlike the FSA, this time around the rebels will get more substantial and unified foreign support.Then, a few days later, the quarreling started and two groups left the RCC, claiming it was too heavily dominated by Islamists.

That is bad news for the US, which wants to train and arm a credible ground force to help defeat the IS. But even more for Turkey.

If the RCC proves to be another failed attempt to unite the splintered and ineffective Syrian mainstream opposition, Turkey should perhaps think again about establishing a buffer zone, even if the US is on board. Without a unified and credible Syrian opposition, there is a real danger the safe zone will quickly turn into a swamp where Turkey will be stuck and Assad will be laughing into his sleeve.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman