(MENAFN - Arab News) With international peacekeepers overseeing a shaky cease-fire in Syria, Turkey appears to be moving closer to creating a buffer zone across the Syrian border as the refugee situation worsens in the regional tinderbox.
The Turkish media are awash with reports that Ankara is finalizing plans to seize territory on the Syrian side. Analysts say the move is not only based on a growing enthusiasm for humanitarian intervention, but for internal Turkish motives.
Turkey, which has the largest army in NATO after the US, could readily set up the "safe zone." The local daily Zaman reported on Monday that Turkey is even considering invoking a 1998 agreement with Syria that would sanction armed intervention on the pretense the revolt in Syria was undermining Turkey's security.
The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has doubled in less than a month and just last week troops loyal to President Bashar Assad opened fire on them, killing at least four and injuring others, including two Turks.
Furthermore, it has been reported that Syrian troops have "strongly infiltrated a number of Turkish areas, some of which have been announced publicly and others not." They also reportedly abducted Syrian defector Lt.-Col. Hussein Harmoush from Turkish soil.
"Has Assad set up a buffer zone in Turkey?" Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, asked sardonically in his column. "The Turkish silence on Assad's transgressions, not just the transgressions against the people of Syria, but also his transgressions against Turkish sovereignty, is puzzling."
One television news anchor in Ankara broadcast that Turkey and Syria were on the "brink of war." Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted with rhetoric belligerence to Syrian actions, saying Turkish actions would be because Assad forced its hand.
"It's a clear violation. Naturally, we shall respond accordingly. We don't want to go inside there. But (the Syrians) shouldn't suspect that if we want to we can't do that," Erdogan said, according to state-run Anatolia news agency.
Erdogan even went so far as to invoke article five of the Atlantic Pact that Syrian violation of its borders is tantamount to an attack on NATO.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has accused the Turks of harboring "armed gangs" and "terrorists." Turkey is in fact openly hosting the Syrian National Council, which is leading the 13-month-long insurrection against the Assad regime that has left over 11,000 dead. It is also allowing the Free Syrian Army to mobilize and train in its territory.
A buffer zone could serve as a bridgehead to wider military deployment and as a supply route for funneling arms to Syrian rebels. There are currently over 25,000 Syrians in refugee camps along Turkey's 910-kilometer (565-mile) border with Syria.
"There have been some statements that indicate a level of frustration in Ankara, but I've seen no indication of actual moves on the ground to create a buffer zone," Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group told The Media Line.
Pope added that Turkey would likely wait for an international mandate, either from the United Nations or the Arab League, before moving forces into Syria. "I haven't seen any signs of that and the downside risks for Turkey are huge," Pope said, warning that Turkey could get bogged down militarily.
"Syria has an army. (A safe zone for refugees) would require military protection. If there is no agreement with Syria about it, it would mean that Syria would be within its rights to oppose that militarily," he said.
Syria's strong ties to Iran, its regional patron, and Russia, its international protector, are further impediments to Turkish action. Turkey gets 80 percent of its natural gas from those two countries and it could be cut off if it attacks Syria.
Efraim Inbar, director of Israel's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line, he believes that the short-term goal of the Turks is to protect and contain the Syrian refugees along the border, but in the longer term it seeks to topple the Assad regime.
"There is no such a thing as a humanitarian intervention. A buffer zone is a military zone. You have to defend a buffer zone," Inbar told the Media Line. "The refugees are a minor consideration. They are afraid that if there is greater turmoil in Syria then it would see north eastern Syria as an autonomous (Kurdish) region just as in Iraq.
"From the Turkish point of view this regime is becoming nastier because they are supporting PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party) now. We see the competition between Iran and Turkey in this area it is a question of not only refugees but a political question of whether to accept Iranian domination of Iraq and Syria."
The inferior Syrian Army could certainly give Turkish forces a bloody nose, Inbar said, but they were no match for the modern, Western-backed Turkish military.
"Assad may try to extract a cost from them to deter them from going further after him, but the Turks don't just see it as a buffer zone, but beyond that," Inbar said. "They may be tempted to change the regime. They may get encouragement from the Americans and the Europeans. After all they aren't doing anything about it and if the Turks are volunteering, then well..."
Kurdish militancy is a volatile issue in Turkey, which Inbar said could be used to support military action against Syria.
"If intervention is sold to the Turkish public as an action that could curb the terrorist activities by the Kurds, then they may buy it," Inbar said.