Al-Qaeda Pulls Back from Proposed Turkish ‘Buffer Zone’ in Syria

Fadi al-Halabi/AMC/AFP

Turkey and the United States have been discussing plans to create a safe haven or “buffer zone” in northern Syria along the Turkish border. It would serve the purpose of enhancing Turkish security, making it harder for ISIS recruits to enter Syria, provide cover for the moderate Syrian rebels, and perhaps offer a safe haven to refugees from the turbulent Syrian civil war.

The Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, is reportedly pulling back from the proposed buffer zone area, which suggests they think the Americans and Turks are serious about the project.

Reuters reports that Nusra Front isn’t going quietly. “A Nusra Front statement dated Sunday criticized a Turkish-U.S. plan to drive Islamic State from the Syrian-Turkish border area, saying the aim was to serve ‘Turkey’s national security’ rather than the fight against President Bashar al-Assad,” the news agency reports.

Nusra also accused the Turks of being primarily interested in preventing the Kurds from pulling their own independent state together, absorbing Turkish territory in the process. Reuters finds that allegation plausible: “The planned buffer would prevent a powerful Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, from further expanding a zone of control that already stretches some 400 km (250 miles) along the Syrian-Turkish border. The YPG has seized wide areas of territory from Islamic State this year, backed by U.S.-led air strikes.”

Having effectively wiped out the tiny U.S.-backed “good guy” Syrian rebel force, the Nusra Front seems to take the buffer zone threat much more seriously. At the very least, they might be willing to skedaddle from ground where the U.S. and Turkey will soon be hammering their enemies in ISIS, while Nusra continues heavy fighting against Syrian government forces, now reportedly led by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah.

The al-Qaeda group said as much in its statement: “Facing this current scene, our only option was to withdraw and leave our frontline positions (with Islamic State) in the northern Aleppo countryside for any fighting faction in these areas to take over.”