After experiencing a sharp increase in violence in recent weeks, Turkey called an emergency meeting of the NATO Council, where plans to create a so-called 'buffer zone' or 'safe zone' free of ISIL militants were reportedly devised and discussed.
While the US hasn’t publicly confirmed if they are working on such proposals, Turkish officials have long-called for the creation of a safe zone along its border with Syria, sparking suggestions that plans are being made for a military bombardment of northern Syria.
However, Dr Neil Quilliam, researcher from UK-based think tank Chatham House, believes the potential creation of a 'safe zone' could create a vacuum for other jihadists due to the weakness of Western allies like the Free Syria Army (FSA), and the US and Turkish policy of refusing to put boots on the ground in Syria.
"The ISIS-free safe zones will provide bases for not only the largely ineffective Western-friendly FSA, but also extremist groups Nusra Front and Arar al-Sham, which share affiliations with Al-Qaeda."
Dr Quilliam says that Western allies in Syria would struggle to protect any refugees relocated to such a safe zone, while it would allow jihadists to strengthen their attacks on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
"Rather than serve as safe havens for allies, they are much more likely to serve as bases from which groups that vehemently oppose the West can perpetuate their war against the Assad regime."
Undermining the Fight Against ISIL
On top of further splintering the conflict in war-torn Syria, Dr Quilliam has warned that any Western attempts to work with Turkey to create a buffer zone in Syria would also undermine the anti-ISIL fight.
While Turkey joined the fight against ISIL with a series of aerial raids on jihadist bases in northern Iraq, posts being patrolled by Kurdish militant group, the PKK were also struck, leading to concerns this may upset the nature of the West’s alliances in Syria.
Turkey considers the Kurdish PKK to be a terrorist group, just like ISIL, which places the US in a difficult balancing act.
"The PKK-aligned Kurdish forces have been the West’s most effective ground partners in fighting Islamic State fighters in Syria, so any Turkish bombing campaign would ultimately hinder the fight against ISIL," Dr Quilliam said.
"While the priority of the US remains destroying and degrading ISIS [ISIL], Turkey’s goal in Syria is to depose the Bashar al-Assad regime and control the Kurdish movement."
"US interests align more naturally with Syria’s main Kurdish party − the PKK-aligned PYD − which considers ISIS its main enemy, not the Syrian regime. The coordination between US fighter aircraft and PKK-aligned ground forces has proven effective at pushing back ISIS and recovering key cities, towns and territory. The US-Turkish agreement, therefore, risks undermining this key relationship and ceding ground to ISIS," he added.
Jihadists Could Benefit From Safe Zone
Therefore, any prospect of a safe zone in northern Syria is going to be fraught with various difficulties that could ultimately end up benefiting the jihadists, Dr Quilliam argues.
Map of a possible Turkish (and US) "buffer zone" in Syria, right between the 2 Kurdish enclaves per my last column. pic.twitter.com/5Ow2R0m0Ap— Hussein Ibish (@Ibishblog) July 28, 2015
"At face value, the prospect of establishing safe zones in Syria appears to be a positive development. However, in their current form, they are unlikely to serve as safe havens for Syrian refugees or areas for the Syrian opposition to practice governance.
"They are much more likely to serve as bases from which groups that vehemently oppose the West can perpetuate their war against the Assad regime. At the same time, the US has ceded valuable political ground to Turkey, which will use these zones to establish hegemony over Syria’s Kurds, rather than to fight ISIS."