Skip to main content

Turkish army service buses burn after a deadly explosion on Wednesday in Ankara.Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images

Turkey's push to create a 10 kilometre-wide buffer zone on the Syrian side of its southern border, backed by Saudi Arabia and Germany in the face of Russian threats that this could ignite "World War III," is expected to confront an important test Thursday when EU leaders gather in Brussels to try to hammer out a common stand on refugees.

Yet a powerful bomb attack in Ankara Wednesday evening, which claimed at least 28 lives with more than 60 wounded, according to media reports, came as a deadly reminder of the risks such an operation would incur. In recent days, as both Syrian government forces and a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia keep edging closer toward the Turkish border with the help of Russian air strikes, Ankara's international isolation has grown, making such a move less likely and more dangerous, experts say.

So has the isolation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, recently Turkey's most vocal supporter in the West.

With a nationalist tide swelling across Europe, Ms. Merkel's open-door policy toward refugees, which resulted in the arrival of more than a million migrants from the Middle East to Germany last year, has increasingly come under fire by fellow European leaders and even by allies in her own ruling coalition at home.

Analysts say she has come to see continued co-operation with Turkey, which clinched a €3-billion ($4.6-billion) deal last November to help keep the refugees from reaching the EU, as a last-ditch attempt to save the union from collapse.

"Especially as we move toward the spring and summer, it is predicted that the number of migrants that would be coming would threaten the integrity not only of [the] Schengen [border-free zone], but [also] the EU," said Ege Seckin, an expert at the London-based global analysis firm IHS. "For that reason, Merkel is desperate to have Turkey's collaboration in preventing the further flow of migrants."

Turkey, on the other hand, views the safe zone as a remedy to the slow-motion collapse of its favoured rebel groups on the ground and its Syria policy, as well as to the prospect of a contiguous Kurdish statelet on its border. Ankara, which faces an escalating Kurdish insurgency at home, believes such a development to be a major threat to the country's territorial integrity.

Mr. Seckin added that these looming failures would be particularly threatening to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he described as "increasingly unpredictable."

In recent months, amid a growing crackdown on critical media, academics and even ordinary citizens, Mr. Erdogan has redoubled his efforts to change the constitution and increase his power. He has sought to rally nationalists with fiery speeches about Turkey's security and international prestige – something that could now backfire on him.

"[Losing face] would definitely really undermine, if not the government, definitely Mr. Erdogan's presidential ambitions," Mr. Seckin said.

Yet a safe zone, which would theoretically keep refugees from the brutal five-year civil war inside Syria, would be a tall order without U.S. and perhaps even Russian support, he and others predicted.

One danger, said Hamid Akin Unver, a professor and expert of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, would be the possibility that the area could be overrun by hostile forces, resulting in a massacre comparable to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War (when some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces inside an area guarded by Dutch forces).

"You have Russian jets in Syria and they are flying very close to the planned safe zone," said Prof. Unver in an e-mail.

"Not only that, you have three combatting powers encircling the proposed safe zone [YPG, the regime and the Islamic State]. All of them combined, you have a very vulnerable safe zone, militarily."

Ms. Merkel also said on Wednesday that she would seek support for the idea from Russia and the Syrian government, as "a sign of goodwill," the Associated Press reported. But "goodwill" toward Turkey in particular may be in short supply, either in Russia, whose bomber jet Turkey downed near the Syrian border after an alleged airspace violation on Nov. 24, or in the United States, where many accuse it of supporting extremists in Syria .

Amid a growing rift with Washington, Turkey's recent shelling of Kurdish forces in Syria in an attempt to keep them from reaching the border drew a sharp rebuke from Vice-President Joe Biden over the weekend.

As opposed to Turkey, which has branded the Kurdish YPG militia as a terrorist organization and threatened to destroy it, the United States and Europe view the Kurds as their most effective local ally against the Islamic State.

Separately, many analysts question whether an incursion into Syria would serve Turkey's interests at all, notwithstanding Mr. Erdogan's rhetoric.

"Saudi [Arabia] and Turkey are likely engaged in great theatre," Joshua Landis, a prominent Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, said in an e-mail. "Both powers, which have ambitions to lead the Sunni world, must demonstrate to their people and beyond that they are defending the Sunni rebels and not standing idly by as they are defeated by Russia and its allies."

Wednesday's car bomb in Ankara, which targeted a military convoy in a highly guarded area of the Turkish capital, illustrated both the risks to Turkey from such an adventure (which include an exacerbated domestic conflict with the Kurds at home and possible attacks from the Islamic State, as well as a potentially devastating conflict with Russia) and the difficulties of protecting a safe zone within war-ravaged Syria.

"Their national interests in Syria do not justify a direct military incursion," Prof. Landis added. "Otherwise, they would have done it years ago."