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Turkey's 'Safe Zone'

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With the news that Syrian bullets have entered Turkish territory, will the Turkish government establish a 'safe zone' along the border? Establishing a buffer zone would require boosted military presence along the border and will surely further strain relations if not inflame them. As one Turkish broadcaster recently put it 'Turkey and Syria are on the brink of war'.

A contentious issue, setting up a buffer zone, has been on and off the agenda in Ankara for the past six months. Turkey's foreign ministry has had little appetite to take the lead in military action against the Syrian regime without the backing of the Western Front, and setting up a buffer zone would be a bold statement in military terms.

And while Ankara struggles to put together a coherent policy on Syria, it may now have a reason to do so. Politically speaking Turkey may be well within her rights to set up a buffer zone after two refugees and one Turkish national were injured on Sunday by firing believed to have originated from Syrian guns.

The Annan Plan looks to be faltering at the first hurdle, not unlike the 2004 Annan plan in Cyprus in which Greeks voted no to a federation, and Turks voted yes. The former UN chief Kofi Annan was billed as the last hope for a rational outcome to the Syrian crisis, but these hopes are fading fast compounded by Syrian artillery having made its way into a Turkish refugee camp.

Annan plans to travel to the camps on Tuesday, where he will hear the sound of gunfire and shelling from across the border. Refugees are sure to tell their stories of oppression and brutal violence levelled against them by the man who promised reform. But how will this visit aid the crisis and the so-called ceasefire agreed to in principle by Damascus, the terms of which seem to be constantly changing.

Annan is reportedly due to visit Tehran later this week. And, with Syria being a regional issue it seems wise to include the Iranians on his hit list, but what difference can the superstar diplomat really make? Will he relay refugees stories of vulnerability and death to Iranian officialdom, and how will they react? A violent regime itself, why should Iran take a stance to halt the violence across the border against opponents of their ally, although Iranian president Ahmedinejad did briefly criticise the Syrian leadership a few months back.

The region between Iran and Syria is porous and smugglers' incomes are allegedly on the up with ammunition easily trafficked from Afghanistan to this area. The war economy is thriving apparently. Perhaps Kofi will ask Iran to police its border better, or, peraps not. The opposition need to get its ammunition from somewhere.

It's rumoured that the Syrian president sent his henchmen to buy up all black market ammunition in Turkey's south east to prevent the opposition from getting their hands on it, which has tripled the price of a bullet, just what the opposition don't need. But should the shelling persist by Syrian guns, perhaps they can pick up the pieces and recycle? Or find supplies from Turkey's own Kurdish rebels? If Syrian Kurds get involved in the Syrian conflict in an organised manner it would surely complicate things for Ankara.

Turkey is already unreportedly providing space for the Free Syrian Army to mobilise and train their fighters. However, what Iran is doing is much less clear. Reports of financial support, plus witness accounts cite Iranian torture methods used against them, but torture is a universal practise so it would be hard to credit the Iranians with such an accolade.

Syria is a regional tinderbox, and all players, Turkey, Iran, and even the Syrian leadership are aware that their actions will shape the future of the Middle East. Establishing a 'safe zone' may provide refugees with some reassurance by blocking Syrian gunfire for now. But safety is not the aim of the game here, and the players have yet to put their cards on the table. Turkey may have no choice but to set up a militarised zone along its border with Syria, but don't expect it to bring safety. Such a zone could be in place for quite some time, Turkey is already fighting a civil war, the last thing it needs is to go to war with its neighbour.

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