Speculation over the details of the recent military agreement between Turkey and the United States in the fight against ISIS indicates that the talks are still ongoing and that there is no final deal yet. Differences over the dynamics of the military operations and what should follow are yet to be worked out. As such, the recent developments in rural Aleppo could be seen as part of the practical steps to overcome the US’s concerns and speed up the establishment of a natural buffer zone in northern Syria.
A sudden shift
The US has been trying since it started its international coalition against ISIS to get Turkey to join, but Turkey had firmly conditioned its participation and use of its facilities on the establishment of a no-fly zone. Although there has not been a public shift in Washington’s policy towards Syria, Turkey suddenly announced its participation in the US led coalition despite fundamental logistical details that could prove tough to resolve, such as prioritizing fighting ISIS over fighting Assad; selecting the rebel groups who would replace ISIS; and handling the Kurdish profile in Syria.
While some people portrayed this agreement as a dramatic turn in Obama’s administration policy toward the conflict in Syria, what the understanding reveals is that Turkey has changed its long-standing demand for the establishment of a no fly zone in Syria to a natural buffer zone hoping that it will later evolve into a no-fly zone. This sudden change in Turkey’s position could be seen in recent developments in Turkey and around its borders, which forced the country not to wait any longer.
Reports from various sources confirmed that groups belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra withdrew on 5 August from some of their military bases in rural Aleppo. According to the same reports, the evacuation took place after a series of meetings with a number of rebel groups, all of which are part of Jabhat al-Shamiya’s coordination alliance. The agreement was to gradually replace Nusra forces with other groups and to relocate Nusra groups in other areas in Aleppo and Idlib. The reports linked this withdrawal to the alleged buffer zone due to its timing; the alleged groups that took over Jabhat al-Nusra’s bases being affiliated with Turkey, mainly Al-Sultan Murad Brigade; and that all bases are located within the alleged buffer zone. The Nusra Front announced on 9 August that it was withdrawing from positions near the Turkish border because it refuses to aid Ankara’s plan to establish an ISIS-free safe zone which only aims to further Turkey’s interests.
It’s worth mentioning that a political party called The Syrian Turkmen National Bloc announced on 7 August that it’s recruiting policemen for the buffer zone. According to the vacancy ad published on the parties’ Facebook page, selected personnel will be trained in Gaziantep, Turkey, for two months. What singles this case out is the fact that the party is strongly affiliated with Turkey — it’s based there and funded by it.
Decreasing aerial bombardment
The Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) reported that the Syrian regime cut back its aerial bombardment in Aleppo Province. SHRC linked this decline to the announcement of the Turkish military operation against ISIS on 24 July. The NGO further claimed that this has led to a large decline in the number of casualties in the area, as well as a decline in the overall number of casualties in Syria. While some people associate the decline with the regime’s fear of the Turkish military operation and the consequences of testing how serious they are, others associate it with the bombarding of the regime’s defense factories in Al-Safira, Aleppo, on 27 July. The defense factories are considered one of the main bases for manufacturing barrel bombs as well as one of the primary sites for the helicopters that deploy them.
It’s still unknown how the attack took place and who was behind it. What’s known for sure is that it’s extremely difficult for a surface-to-surface missile to target the site. It’s also unlikely that it was the result of a manufacturing mishap with the explosives stored there, as the Syrian regime didn’t comment on the incident. The most likely scenario is that it was attacked in an air strike, which narrows down who could have done it. The timing has also made some people believe that it was linked to the alleged safe zone as well.
Although most of the abovementioned indicators have not been independently verified, and may have happened due to other dynamics that are not linked to the buffer zone, putting all of these factors together provides a possibility, among others, that the buffer zone is in the making. If this possibility is proven to be true in the near future, the remaining question will be whether these initiatives were done solely by Turkey or whether they were part of a timetable mutually determined up front.
Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher based in Istanbul. He tweets @HaidHaid22