How Safe Is Syria’s Safe Zone?

The real purpose behind Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intransigent attitude regarding the establishment of a so-called Safe Zone in northeast Syria is becoming more evident day after day. The Turkish leader is trying to hit two or more birds with one stone; neutralising the danger of an independent Kurdish entity in the area and resettling millions of Syrian refugees – mainly pro-Turkish – in the vast sways of land largely controlled by US-backed Kurds.

Colourful and promising as these plans might sound, the feasibility on the ground remains extremely doubtful and far-fetched for many reasons. For instance, there is great rejection from a majority of the refugees from Syria’s hinterland, Damascus eastern suburbs and southern provinces, to resettle in a strange area hundreds of kilometres away from their historical hometowns and what they have left behind with the hope of returning home one day.

The massive cost of building an infrastructure for millions in a historically farming region and the opposition by the Syrian government, who views the Turkish-US scheme as direct foreign intervention in its internal affairs, to changing the demographic fabric of the country in a manner that jeopardises the integrity of Syria and breaches its sovereignty are further complicating factors that face the Turkish plan.

“By making east of the Euphrates a safe place, and depending on the depth of this safe zone, we can resettle two to three million displaced Syrians currently living in our country and Europe,” Erdogan told an audience of academics in Ankara on Wednesday.

Turkish Expansionist Greed Revisited

The majority of Syrians suspect the real goals behind Erdogan’s long push for the establishment of the safe zone in northeast Syria. Their doubts are well based, given Turkish annexation 80 years ago of historically Syrian Iskenderun province; 5000 square kilometres (half the size of Lebanon) of Syrian territories were given to Turkey by colonial France in a deal that followed World War 1 in a rigged referendum. The strategic province had belonged to the Aleppo Vilayet (province) and was the city’s only port on the Mediterranean during the Ottoman occupation of Syria. More recently, the recurrent Turkish incursions and later occupation, directly or by proxy, of Efren and other towns and areas close to the Turkish borders in western Syria. Current Turkish plots for Syrian northeast are widely viewed here as another form of occupation that the Syrian government has pledged to confront by all available means.

Patrolling a Minefield

Joint American-Turkish patrols have started monitoring the newly declared safe zone in northeast Syria, following a barrage of Turkish and American reciprocal threats and counter-threats regarding the area that spans hundreds of kilometres along the Syrian-Turkish borders. The Trump administration gave in to Turkish demands here following assurances by Ankara that it will not target the US-backed PYD Kurdish militia and its supporters in the region.

How safe will the safe zone be? Who will convince the Syrian Kurds in the northeast – a historical nightmare for Turkey – to give up their control of Syria’s richest oil and gas lands? The Kurdish dream of an independent entity that not long ago came closer than ever? What will they get in return?

Syrians, Iranians and even Russians insist that the integrity of Syrian territories should not be compromised under any deal or solution to the over 8-year conflict that has ravaged large areas of the country. The safe zone is a blatant breach of that very premise. So many intricate questions need to be addressed and mutually agreed upon before the safe zone can be considered ‘safe’ enough to enjoy any genuine chance of survivability.

Syrian Kurds, Biggest losers?

In a worst-case scenario whereby both big players, the US and Turkey decide to share the riches of the area east of the Euphrates, Syrian Kurds might once again find themselves the biggest losers in a deal between the two top dogs who have long had their eyes on the massiveSyrian oil and gas reserves.

Moreover, given the historical blood-littered heritage between Turkey and Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Syria, it is difficult to envisage a long-lasting coexistence between the two anywhere, let alone in this strategically important zone.

Paradoxically enough, Syrian Kurds have had good ties with both Russia and the United States. Given the conflicting agendas of the parties involved in the deal, some form of popular resistance or hostilities remains a high probability and the safe zone might well prove to be nothing more a massive minefield for the Turks in particular.