Reports that Turkish F-16s will fly reconnaissance flights along the Syrian frontier highlight rising alarm over border security and suggest a further internationalization of the civil war in Syria with implications for it, Turkey, and the region’s Kurds.

Sabah, a pro-Justice and Development (AK) Party daily newspaper in Turkey, reported today that steps are being taken to establish a ten kilometer-wide security zone along the Syrian border to deal with military threats, illicit trafficking in arms and people, and other problems. These measures include reconnaissance flights to be carried out on a 24×7 basis along the border by Turkish F-16s, whose pilots’ rules of engagement reportedly include permission to fly up to 5 kilometers into Syrian territory and to shoot if they feel threatened. Sabah also cited the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles and plans to construct a several kilometer-long wall near Reyhanli, in Turkey’s Hatay province, which has been the scene of cross-border firing and other problems for months. Sabah cited no sources.

This reported security zone plan follows developments along the border that have increasingly worried the authorities in Ankara who met in emergency session on July 24, according to multiple Turkish press reports. Fighting for control of border area territory and towns has been reported for some time between forces of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) and al-Qaeda-linked elements of the Syrian opposition, especially the al-Nusra Front. The PYD is generally considered to be affiliated with the PKK and loyal to its imprisoned leader Öcalan. It has therefore long been a target of concern as Turkey has eyed the deteriorating situation in Syria.

PYD plans announced on July 18 to declare an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria’s north drew predictably worried reactions from Turks about the ‘unacceptability’ of such a development. To mollify Ankara, the PYD declared that it poses no threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity and called for cooperation against radical groups fighting in northern Syria. Turkish newspapers reported the flying of a PYD flag over local government buildings in various border towns – and, on July 26, their replacement by flags of the Kurdish Communities Union, a less obviously militant component of the PKK. Local media have also reported accusations that Turkey has been aiding the al-Qaeda-linked Syrian opposition. The implicit suggestion is that Ankara is using groups like the al-Nusra Front, designated by the United States as a terrorist organization, against not only Assad, but also against the PKK’s allies in Syria.

Concern about growing dangers for regional kinsmen was the catalyst for an urgent meeting among Kurdish leaders convened July 22 in Erbil by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masood Barzani. Going back to at least December 2012, KRG leaders have been urging caution on their Syrian brethren and to avoid getting overdrawn into Syria’s civil war. A top Erbil figure privately remarked at that time that the Sunni Arab-dominated opposition and Assad were “equally dangerous” for Syria’s Kurds. He expressed particular concern about the Syrian and broader regional implications of the growing role of al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda linked radical groups.

Turkish media put out word July 26 that the leader of the PYD, Saleh Muslim, had arrived in Istanbul from Erbil for expected talks with Turkish foreign ministry and intelligence officials. Muslim’s visit is unprecedented. For the head of a political, paramilitary, and, in Turkish eyes, terrorist organization that is clearly allied with Öcalan and the PKK to visit Turkey at all, much less meet with government officials, is remarkable. It speaks volumes to how much Turkish-Kurdish relations have changed. It also underscores how deeply concerned the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and regional Kurdish leaders are about potentially dangerous developments along the Turkish-Syrian border that affect their interests at a turbulent and unpredictable time for the region.

Developments in Syria necessitate this cooperation, of which the internal Turkish-Kurdish peace process is also part. That process has seemed to falter since the Gezi Park disturbances distracted the Erdoğan government in May. Each side blames the other. In recent weeks, PKK leaders and political figures associated with Turkey’s Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) that is loyal to Öcalan have increasingly criticized the Erdoğan government for dragging its feet. For their part, Turkish sources have put out information that the PKK’s side of the bargain, the withdrawal of its several thousand-strong fighting force into northern Iraq, has gone slowly, too, but also released an AK Party-funded poll that claims rising public support for the peace process, struck from the Turkish military code language that was cited in the past to overthrow elected governments–a reported PKK demand, and talked up other possible legal and constitutional reforms for parliament to consider when it returns in the fall.

Barzani, Öcalan, Saleh Muslim, and the Turkish authorities come together in important ways. Ankara’s opening to the PKK was always only partly about Turkey’s internal Kurdish problem, though that aspect is quite important. It has also been about trying to influence developments in Syria through Syria’s Kurds–who would certainly not be sympathetic to Turkey or Turkish interests if left to their own devices–and about trying to ensure that Kurdish nationalism in that country will be a friendly phenomenon in the model of Barzani and the KRG, not a hostile one. Öcalan, who commands far more loyalties among Syrian Kurds than Barzani, has been key to that. One can assume that he at least implicitly approved Muslim’s visit to Turkey and that the fact it is taking place reflects at least some success in the Syria component of Erdoğan’s Kurdish initiative.

All that aside, Turkish air sorties into Syrian airspace, if they in fact take place, may risk a significant escalation of the confrontation between the Erdoğan government and the Assad regime that would further internationalize Syria’s civil war. This and the broader machinations among Turkey, Syria, and Kurds of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey remain items to watch as Syria further unravels.

US policymakers have rightly steered clear of involvement in the Erdoğan government’s dialogue with Turkey’s Kurds. They should continue to do so. Washington has been more ambivalent about contacts between Ankara and Erbil. This has especially found reflection in demarches delivered in both capitals for over a year that have urged against bilateral deals on energy and especially energy exports without the involvement of the Iraqi central government in Baghdad. Energy remains an area for caution, but recent indications are that the authorities in Ankara understand they have interests in both Erbil and Baghdad. (See “Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey Proceed Slowly on Energy Cooperation.”)

Given Barzani’s helpful role vis-à-vis Kurds regionally, the United States should find ways to support Turkish-Kurdish dialogue with him and the other conversations that he has helped engender, including that with PYD leader Saleh Muslim. Finally, Washington should find an early opportunity to stand with Turkey if and as it moves to set up a security zone–including one backed by F-16 patrols. While the United States must not let Ankara drag it or NATO into a broader conflict, the way to do this is to publicly support its long-time ally on this urgent and vital security matter and to back up that approach with a credible enough show of force to deter Assad from expanding his fight northward.

Ross Wilson is director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former ambassador to Turkey (2005-08) and to Azerbaijan (2000-03).

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