Syria has recently pushed Turkey to the brink of war and has seen the defection of prominent Syrian military figures. Syria is in a very weak position; it is now Turkey’s move. Turkey should apply military pressure by establishing a buffer zone at or around the Turkey-Syria border behind which the Syrian opposition can compose itself before toppling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Doing this will send a message to the Middle East that Turkey, the rising Islamic democracy, is indeed a regional leader for good.
Turkey certainly has reason and means to apply military pressure. On June 22, a Turkish F-4 fighter jet was shot down by Syria near the coast where the Turkish and Syrian borders reach the Mediterranean. Whether it was in Syrian or international airspace remains disputed. Regardless, the act has received widespread criticism from Turkey and its NATO allies. Prime Minister of Turkey Tayyip Erdogan has said they will not tolerate more aggression; Syria knows it is on its last leg with its neighbor. Should Turkey wish to act militarily, it could make quick work of Syria, which has a substantially weaker military than Turkey.
Although it would be easy for Turkey to roll across the country and overthrow Assad, it should restrain itself. The time it would take for Turkey to overthrow Assad would be too short to give the opposition forces of Syria time to prepare themselves to lead Syria. The beleaguered country certainly does not need warring factions of rebels nor to be occupied by Turkey during a transitional period.
Secondly, the precedent that a full-blown invasion would set would fly in the face of international norms. Syria is by no means an existential threat to Turkey and the shooting down of the plane is not the type of action that should begin a war. In the few days since the incident, Turkey has pledged to follow international law and has invoked article 4 of the NATO treaty, which convenes a meeting between NATO members when one member has felt threatened. Working with international bodies thus sets a good precedent for how countries in the volatile region should engage each other.
Instead of an invasion, Turkey should set up a buffer zone along its roughly 900-km border that Syrians can cross to find refuge. Syria would not challenge this. Even if the buffer zone was partly inside of Syria, an attack on it would provoke Turkish aggression that Syria knows could not be stopped. Once this zone is created, Syrian military forces wishing to defect (which there are many more of, according to recently defected Colonel Abdel Farid Zakaria) would have a safe place to do so. Then, the opposition could establish itself by identifying leaders and issuing its demands of Assad. With an organized, Turkish-supported opposition the Assad regime would face even more pressure to step down or be deposed. Whichever happened, there would be an organized cadre of leaders prepared to begin the transition.
In addition to fostering a peaceful post-Assad transition, this plan would win Turkey support on the Arab street. That Turkey could give the rebels essential military support yet not add to the bloodbath would establish Turkey as a force of good in the Middle East. NATO should support the buffer zone but let Turkey act on its own, as this is the moment for Turkey’s to assume its highly-anticipated position as regional hegemon.