Jan 12 2019

“Physical buffer zone” needed in northern Syria – former NATO supreme commander

A physical barrier will eventually be necessary in northern Syria, where Turkey is preparing to attack Kurdish militias stationed alongside allied U.S. forces, retired U.S. admiral James Stavridis, a former Allied Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, said on Friday.

“Ultimately, Hugh, what will be needed is some kind of a physical buffer zone between Turkey and Syria,” Stavridis told Salem Radio Network host Hugh Hewitt. “That could be UN-patrolled, it could be joint patrols by the United States and Russia, for example. It could be patrolled by the Turks on one side and the Syrian Kurds on the other. But we’re going to need a physical barrier eventually.”

Turkish leaders have vowed to launch a military operation against areas in northern Syria controlled by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and allied groups. Ankara views these militias as a threat due to their links to armed Kurdish insurgent groups in Turkey, though they have been a valuable ally to the United States in northern Syria, where they have helped clear the Islamic State from vast swathes of territory and have been touted as a potential barrier to Iranian expansion.

Nevertheless, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a swift withdrawal from Syria on December 19. The command would have left the path clear for the Turkish advance, but later statements from Trump and other senior officials backtracked to say no timeline had been set for the withdrawal, which would be conditional on ensuring the safety of the United States’ Syrian Kurdish allies.

The changing statements sparked anger from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who refused a meeting with Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, on Tuesday – an understandable reaction, for Stavridis.

“I think that Erdoğan is reacting to what he perceives as confusing signals from the administration,” said Stavridis, who professed to a strong understanding of Turkey through his dozens of trips to throughout his career. Stavridis also said his grandparents were born in Ottoman Turkey and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s as they ethnically Greeks. 

The Turkish president’s stance in response was one of a “complicated, prideful partner” seeking to stress its independence from U.S. wishes, Stavridis said.

The admiral added that Ankara’s insistence on pursuing a military operation was an “ominous development” before elaborating on his view that Turkey sought to be taken as a regional power in its own right.

“The Turks get very frustrated with the United States when we tend to think Turkey is somehow a bridge between east and west. They reject that, they see themselves as a centre of power that evolved from the Ottoman Empire,” Stavridis said.

“We’re going to have to play our hand carefully,” he added. “And I think it is entirely possible that the Turks will surge across that border and go after our Kurdish allies, partners and friends.”

If they do so, the clashes could potentially lead to U.S. casualties, a situation that could prove explosive in a regional environment the admiral likened to that seen in the Balkans prior to World War One, “when great powers interacted in dangerous ways over relatively small stretches of terrain.”

In the event that U.S. forces are harmed by Turkish soldiers in northern Syria, NATO allies would potentially be bound to respond to Turkey by Article 5 of the NATO pact, which refers to collective defence.

It was a prospect that evoked a laugh from Stavridis when it was raised by Hewitt, though the admiral agreed that the treaty would technically require a response from NATO members. “But let’s not leap to the apocalyptic end to the thing,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, a buffer zone comprised of international patrols would be necessary to minimise the risk of such a conflict.

“But it’s going to require good faith on both sides, U.S. and Turkey, to make sure that we don’t push this to a breaking point with a NATO ally,” said Stavridis.