Turkey poised to send troops into Syria for first time
Turkey has sent shock waves through the Middle East by preparing plans to send troops into Syria for the first time, turning the civil war into an international conflict on Europe's borders.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has authorised a change in the rules of engagement agreed by the Turkish parliament to allow the army to strike at Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), as well as the Assad regime, according to local media.
The aim is to establish a buffer zone for refugees and against Isil, but Mr Erdogan has also suggested that the main target of the intervention, if it goes ahead, will be to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state on Turkey's doorstep.
The Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, has established dominance in a border strip across the north of the country in recent months.
"We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria's north and our south," Mr Erdogan said at the weekend. "We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs."
Turkey has urged the creation of a buffer zone protected by international forces in the north of Syria ever since the civil war sent hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border.
That figure is approaching two million, making Turkey the single largest host of refugees of any country.
But until now it has refused to countenance "going it alone" in intervention in Syria.
Following Mr Erdogan's speech, Turkish media were briefed on new orders being given to the military to prepare to send an 18,000-strong force across the border, with some reports saying the move could take place as early as this Friday.
The troops would seize a stretch of territory 60 miles long by 20 deep, including the border crossings of Jarablus, currently in Isil hands, and Aazaz, currently controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but under attack from Isil.
The buffer zone would kill several birds with one stone. As well has allowing Turkey to establish refugee camps not on its soil but under its protection, it would prevent the two current zones of Kurdish control - from Kobane to the Iraq border in the east, and Afrin in the west - from joining up.
The Turkish establishment is hostile to the YPG, as an offshoot of the PKK guerrilla group which has fought for autonomy in south-eastern Turkey for four decades.
The zone would also allow Turkey more easily to control the flow of weapons and fighters into Syria, something that critics say it has not done well enough, encouraging the rise of Isil.
Changing the rules of engagement would give Turkey a pretext for intervention. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has been driven back and has been careful to present no threat that would justify an attack, but Isil is attacking FSA forces supported by Turkey on the border.
"Isil, along with other armed groups that have the potential to jeopardise Turkey's security, will be included as threats to Turkey in the amended rules and the Turkish armed forces could launch an operation against Isil once it approaches its borders," the pro-Erdogan 'Sabah' newspaper has reported.
It remains unclear whether the threat to intervene will be followed up by action.
The military is said to be unhappy about involving ground troops in the civil war. It is said to be offering to join the international bombing campaign against Isil instead.
In particular, there is a question mark over whether the intervention would be legal under Turkish law without a vote in parliament, or in international law without a UN Security Council resolution.
There would also be intense opposition to the operation being approved by the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who is only still in place because of difficulties forming a coalition after his party, the Islamist AKP, failed to win a majority in this month's election. (© Daily Telegraph, London)