ANKARA (Reuters) - Alarmed by Syrian Kurds’ advances against Islamic State, and irked by Western reluctance to tackle Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Tayyip Erdogan has once again raised the prospect of a Turkish military intervention in Syria.
Such a move would risk alienating the West when confidence in Turkey has been already shaken by Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and a slowdown in growth, and also prevent the AK Party that he founded forming a coalition with the main opposition party.
But Erdogan’s drum-beating may be a gambit aimed at influencing the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, and bolstering his popularity at home after a major election setback for the AKP.
Ankara has looked askance as Syrian Kurdish PYD forces, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, have pushed back Islamic State militants from Syrian towns near the Turkish border. Turkey fears the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state in Syrian territory, which would further embolden its own 14 million Kurds.
Erdogan said over the weekend that he would “never allow” the formation of such a state, and since then, pro-government newspapers have trumpeted suggestions of an intervention, including the creation of a 110 by 33 km (70 by 20 mile) “buffer zone” in Syria’s Jarablus region, now controlled by Islamic State.
“This would be a move that would highly destabilize the region and become a major point of contention with the West,” said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.
One of Erdogan’s top aides said Turkey was talking to NATO allies about border security and already had the legal justification for moves to preserve that security, without giving further details.
Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist who often reflects government thinking, said there were a number of factors that could spur Turkey into designating a 15 km buffer zone, where its ground troops would be authorized to advance into Syrian territory.
One such “red line” would be the occupation of the area around Jarablus, on the western bank of the Euphrates, by Kurdish forces; another would be any attack by Islamic State that drove substantially more Syrian refugees towards Turkey, which already hosts nearly 2 million.
“If the Jarablus region falls into PYD hands, Turkey’s trade route into Syria and beyond to the Middle East would be cut off,” Selvi wrote in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.
Ankara is also concerned about the fate of ethnic Turkmens in the area, having accused Kurdish fighters of “ethnic cleansing”.
“If the PYD takes Jarablus and a Kurdish line is formed right along the border, Turkey’s ties with the central areas of Syria will be broken,” said an official in Ankara.
“There is a risk that around 1 million refugees could head for Turkey in one go if several residential areas were to fall. For Turkey, there are serious burdens, both socially and financially.”
Ankara wants above all to get Washington to rein in Kurdish aspirations of statehood and increase the pressure on Assad.
But the United States’ scope to respond is limited: it has focused on supporting the Kurdish PYD as the best bet to defeat its main enemy, Islamic State, and needs Assad’s tacit acquiescence to be able to attack the Islamist militants from the air.
The U.S. State Department said on Monday it had no “solid evidence” that Turkey was considering a buffer zone in Syria, adding that such a move would have “serious logistical challenges”.
Officials in Ankara, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkey was in the end unlikely to act alone.
“Without a doubt, the international coalition has started to pay more attention to Turkey’s demands in the last week. This is a positive development,” said one senior official familiar with security matters.
“Our priority is joint action rather than establishing a secure zone unilaterally ... There is not a plan for Turkey to go into Syria alone. The relevant authorities are holding talks with the United States on this. They are aware of the situation.”
In any case, the official said nothing would happen before the formation of a new Turkish government.
While military action could allow Erdogan to whip up nationalist support at home, it would not bode well for the AK Party’s attempts to form a grand coalition with the center Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has already come out against intervention.
A coalition with the CHP is favored by the AKP’s top brass, as it would help soothe relations with the West and with foreign investors.
On Wednesday, the World Bank cut its growth forecasts for Turkey as uncertainty over who will govern exacerbated perceptions of economic weaknesses.
Military intervention would most likely mean that the AKP would have to throw its lot in with the nationalists - something that would probably put an end to Erdogan’s long efforts to negotiate peace with Kurds at home.
Turkey’s parliament voted along party lines on Wednesday to elect as its speaker Ismet Yilmaz, the defense minister from the AKP, reducing the prospects of a coalition with the CHP.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul and Tulay Karadeniz and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey