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Turkey mulls buffer zone in case of big Syrian influx

Turkey is considering creating a buffer zone on its border with Syria if hundreds of thousands flee the unrest there, a Turkish daily newspaper reported on Friday.
Nearly 3,000 Syrians have fled into southern Turkey fearing a military assault, and the Syrian army has begun a military operation near the border in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, Syrian television said on Friday. “Foreign Ministry officials said that among scenarios that had been discussed was the creation of a buffer zone if hundreds of thousands want to seek refuge in Turkey,” the Hürriyet daily reported.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated on Thursday that Turkey would keep its gates open to people from Syria. But Damascus, he said, was taking the issue “very lightly,” and Ankara could not defend Syria’s “inhumane” response to the unrest. “We can’t close our door to those people who run away for their lives, but how long is it going to be like this?” Erdoğan told ATV private television station late on Thursday.

In late May, speaking with Today’s Zaman, Turkish officials neither denied nor confirmed a report suggesting that the Turkish military has drawn up an operation that would send several battalions of Turkish troops into Syria to carve out a “safe area” for Syrian refugees.

“Watching the hundreds of refugees pouring from Syria across the northern border of Lebanon, the Turkish government is now so fearful of a repeat of the great mass Iraqi Kurdish refugee tide that overwhelmed their border in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War that it has drawn up its own secret plans to prevent the Kurds of Syria moving in their thousands into the Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey. Turkish generals have thus prepared an operation that would send several battalions of Turkish troops into Syria itself to carve out a “safe area” for Syrian refugees inside Assad’s caliphate,” veteran journalist Robert Fisk wrote in an article published in the UK daily The Independent on May 30.

In the article titled “Who cares in the Middle East what Obama says?” Fisk also said that Turkey has been prepared to advance well beyond the Syrian border town of Al Qamishli — perhaps half way to Deir el-Zour — to provide a “safe haven” for those fleeing the slaughter in Syria’s cities. Turkish officials, approached by Today’s Zaman on May 30, had declined to comment on the content of Fisk’s article, while neither confirming nor denying whether carving out a safe area inside Syrian territory was among the contingency plans that had been drawn up by the relevant authorities. “We have been brainstorming vis-à-vis all kinds of possibilities,” a senior Turkish diplomat, meanwhile, told Today’s Zaman at the time.

Turkey shares an 880-kilometer border with Syria, most of it heavily mined.

“At the moment, there is no sign of a huge exodus of refugees from Syria to Turkey. Yet, there is certainly a lot of mental preparation, that is to say talking and planning, just to get ready for such a situation. We don’t have any intention of being caught unaware by anything,” the same diplomat, speaking under the customary condition of anonymity, told Today’s Zaman.

During the first Gulf War, some 450,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees climbed snow-capped mountains to cross into Turkey. At the time, with only 20,000 tents on hand, the Turkish government found itself scrambling to shelter and feed far more people than it had anticipated. Iraqis who arrived in Turkey in groups after the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988 and after the Gulf crisis of 1991 formed the biggest group of asylum seekers in Turkey’s recent history.