In the last 24 hours rebel groups within Syria have begun clashing with ISIS positions in the northern part of Aleppo Govenorate. These clashes appear to mark the beginning of an audacious plan created by Turkey to create a so-called ‘Safe Zone’ in northern Syria. This plan would entail the creation of a 98km long and 45km deep buffer zone within Syria, stretching from the edge of the YPG-controlled Afrin Canton, to the ISIS-controlled town of Jarabulus on the Euphrates River. While Turkey does not plan to be sending in its own ‘boots on the ground’ in order to establish this zone, it has promised to support ‘moderate’ rebel groups with air power and long-range artillery.
However, this is much easier said that done. The majority of this planned safe zone is controlled by ISIS forces, and the rebels in the areas also have to devote the bulk of their forces to fighting (or at the very least defending) against regime forces further south, in the Aleppo urban area. So which forces will be involved in the fighting, and what are their capabilities?
The primary groups who will be involved in the fighting are the remnants of the secular Free Syria Army (FSA) alongside the Islamic Front. Together, both of these groups will be working as part of a newly reformed joint operations room called the Levant Front (Jabhat al-Shamiyya).
While these are the primary groups involved, one additional group – Syrian Turkmen – could add additional support to this anti-ISIS coalition. The Syrian Turkmen Brigades are anti-government militias made up of ethnic Turkmen fighters, comprising a number of moderate-sized brigades in the Northern Aleppo countryside. There is strong evidence to suggest that these groups are directly trained and armed by the Turkish government. Reports arose earlier this week of a large group of such fighters openly crossing the Turkish border into Syria, leading further weight to the idea that they are a Turkish proxy army.
As previously mentioned, within the last 24 hours, these groups have already gone on the offensive against ISIS. So far the have been able to push ISIS back form their frontlines in the region and capture some small villages from the group. Despite this however, unless the US or Turkey massively ramp up their air support for Levant Front, it is unlikely that they will be able to rapidly defeat ISIS, and establish this Safe Zone in its entirety.
ISIS depends on this region for cross-border smuggling from Turkey, and should it be lost, the group would find itself almost completely cut off from outside supply. As such, we can expect to see incredibly stiff resistance from the group, and a possible stalling of the Turkish-organized offensive.
When this happens, Turkey will be forced to make the decision on whether to be content with a smaller safe zone, or escalate its involvement, either through more proxy militias and air strikes, or with a small number of regular ground troops. Whatever decision they make will have a significant impact of the overall development of the Syrian Civil War this year.