President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned from high-level meetings at and on the sidelines of the United Nations in New York and told reporters in Ankara Friday that his government will now address what role Turkey will play in the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
“Three things are of the utmost importance,” he said. “Firstly, the formation of a no-fly zone; secondly, the formation of a safe haven on the Syrian side and preparation for its organization and administration; and thirdly we will discuss which actors will manage this process.”
On Sunday, Erdogan raised the matter again, saying during an address to a World Economic Forum meeting in Istanbul that a no-fly zone must be established with international approval for the “protection of Syrians.”
Turkey’s government says more than a million Syrian refugees have flooded into the country, and it hopes a buffer zone providing safe haven for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians still on their side of the border will stem the tide, which Erdogan said “should come to a stop, one way or another.”
The no-fly zone proposal is less clear-cut, however, especially as critics of the plan in the region have pointed out that ISIS does not operate aircraft and so does not pose an airborne threat.
But Turkey’s aim is to ensure that the international community, with its focus fixed on ISIS, does not lessen the pressure on the Assad regime; enforcing a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace would ground President Bashar Assad’s air force, and thereby boost rebels fighting to oust him.
Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu argued earlier this month that the regime’s ability to attack mainstream opposition rebels from the sky had enabled ISIS to grow stronger.
“If there had been a no-fly zone declared in Syria when we asked for it, then ISIL would not have been able to spread to such a wide area,” he said on Sept. 19. “You may ask whether ISIL has planes. No, it doesn’t. But when the regime bombarded the opposition [Free Syrian Army], it had to retreat to places safe from air attacks, and ISIL entered these vacated places. So a tactical coalition was formed between ISIL and the regime. This is how ISIL grew.”
“If there was a ‘no-fly zone’ and no [regime] air operations, then the Free Syrian Army could have advanced more easily, protected itself and maybe a new administration [in Damascus] could have been possible,” Davutoglu said.
But neither a no-fly zone nor a buffer zone/safe haven is high on the Pentagon’s agenda as it executes the military campaign against ISIS.
At a Pentagon press briefing Friday neither Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel nor chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey expressed enthusiasm when asked about Turkey’s views on the two issues.
“We continue to talk with the Turkish leadership about their different ways to contribute to the coalition,” Hagel said. “The issue of a buffer zone is not a new issue, as you all know. We discuss all these possibilities, and we’ll continue to talk about what the Turks believe they require.”
Dempsey was then asked again about Turkey’s stance on a buffer zone and a no-fly zone.
“Yeah, look, a buffer zone might, at some point, become a possibility, but that’s not part of our campaign plan presently,” he replied. He did not address the no-fly zone proposal.
One thing the U.S. has been pressing Turkey on is the matter of using the Incirlik air base to launch air attacks against ISIS. The NATO facility in south-eastern Turkey is just 200 or so miles from the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.
Earlier this month unnamed government officials told Turkish media the use of Incirlik for combat missions was off the table, but at that stage Turkey’s reticence was attributed largely to concerns about the safety of dozens of Turkish hostages seized by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq last June.
Those captives have since been released, prompting Secretary of State John Kerry to declare in New York last week that with the hostage issue now resolved, “Turkey is very much part of this coalition, and Turkey will be very engaged on the frontlines of this effort.”
Whether that involvement will include allowing the use of Incirlik is yet to be seen. So far no concrete contributions to the coalition have been announced.
On Thursday this week, Turkey’s parliament will debate resolutions on extending existing mandates allowing the Turkish military to mount operations across the borders with Syria and Iraq if necessary.