Turkey's Syrian Buffer Zone Will Not Bring Peace
|Kurdish YPG Fighters. CC 2017 by Kurdishstruggle on Flickr
Israel's experience with occupying buffer zones along its border suggests Turkey's operation will be costly in terms of blood and treasure—and will fail to bring peace.
Turkey has been waging an on-and-off war against Kurdish insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK, which Turkey and the US consider to be a terrorist group) within its borders since 1984. The ethnically Kurdish People's Protection Units (known by their Kurdish acronym YPG) make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which fought alongside the US against forces of the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria. Turkish President Erdogan claims the Syrian YPG and Turkish PKK work together—and that Turkey must thus combat both. It is unclear to what extent, if any, the two are connected, but it is clear that Erdogan's plan to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria will not bring Turkey lasting peace. Israel shows why: It has occupied multiple similar buffer zones, nearly all of which failed to bring sustainable peace.
Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israel has conquered Sinai, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon. The occupation or annexation of the Golan Heights and the West Bank could be considered successful from a strategic standpoint (though even this is debatable for the latter). The others were all failures that resulted in violence, attrition, and ignominious Israeli withdrawals. The reason? Occupation is a control strategy rather than a coercive strategy. It relies not on influencing your opponent's options, but on taking them away altogether.
Such control is difficult and expensive. It has been successful in the Golan Heights because there is no local Syrian population there to control. It has been at least partly successful in the West Bank due to massive investment in counterterrorism, security barriers, roadblocks, and more. Moreover, Israel also relies extensively on "indirect deterrence", rather than attempting outright control, to achieve results in the West Bank. This requires it to work with and influence the Palestinian leadership there rather than simply superseding it.
Turkey's buffer will not be a zone that is empty but for Turkish soldiers (like the Golan Heights) and it's unlikely to build settlements and begin expanding into the territory while building out a massive internal security and intelligence network there (like the West Bank). Instead, Erdogan should look for parallels to the Israeli occupation of Sinai after the Six Day War. The vastly superior Israeli army fought a long war of attrition with the Egyptian military, which continued to escalate over the years. The eventual result was the Arab-Israeli War of 1973—the closest Israel has come to annihilation since the modern state's founding. Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon offers similar lessons: The effort was expensive, failed to stop the attacks, and ended when Israel eventually withdrew without having gained much in return. In fact, its withdrawal in 2000 required it to invade (and quickly leave) southern Lebanon again in 2006 to establish deterrence instead of control—which has mostly worked!
Does the same fate await Turkey? It depends how long Turkey holds the buffer zone and the conditions under which it departs. The strip Turkey holds could be a useful bargaining chip against Assad and Russia. Having secured concessions, Turkey could withdraw without losing too much blood or treasure. This leaves open what those concessions might be and whether Assad and Russia would agree to them and be able to uphold them. So far, Erdogan's stated aims have been related to counterterrorism and protecting southern Turkey. This sounds like an open-ended commitment to controlling the territory for as long as is necessary to end PKK violence. It's unclear the YPG ever helped increase PKK violence, but Turkish occupation of territory the YPG sees as its own would give it a strong incentive to reconsider such restraint.
Staying in the buffer zone will bring Turkey a much larger—and above all longer—fight than it bargained for; a fight with no clear end in sight. For everyone's sake, Erdogan should at most use the buffer zone as leverage and get out as soon as possible. If Turkey refuses to negotiate with the Kurds, then counterterrorism at home and direct and indirect deterrence abroad are a much better way to keep Turkey safe.