Behind Turkey’s Obsession With Syria’s Safe Zone

On Tuesday, November 5, Turkey’s Erdogan said the Kurdish militia YPG (People’s Protection Units) had not yet withdrawn from some areas within the Safe Zone that Turkey aims at establishing in northeastern Syria. The Turkish president also stated that US forces were still patrolling the areas alongside Kurdish fighters.

The agreement Turkey reached with the United States earlier in October to establish a cease-fire in areas of conflict, such as Ras al-Ayn, required that YPG fighters should withdraw from the Safe Zone in return of Turkey stopping its offensive.

Yet President Erdogan, who is expected to visit the White House on November 13, said areas in the Safe Zone were “not cleared of terrorists.” “Terrorists have not been taken out of either Tel Rifaat or Manbij,” he said, referring to two Syrian towns near the Turkish borders where he said Kurdish fighters were still present.

The Turkish president also said that YPG fighters were still present in east Ras al-Ayn, a town that should be under Turkish control according to the Sochi agreement as well. Ankara had reached the agreement with Moscow in late October in Sochi, Russia.

Both the United States and Russia previously said YPG fighters had left border areas. Calling into question both countries’ statements, President Erdogan also said on Tuesday that Turkey would only abide by its deals with Russia and the United States if the two countries keep their promises.

“How can we explain America holding patrols with terrorist organizations in this region even though they made the decision to withdraw? This is not our agreement,” he said.

The Safe Zone

The Turkish incursion into Syrian territory in early October draws from Ankara’s goals of establishing a buffer zone in northeastern Syria along its borders. The idea of instituting a “safe zone” in the region is not novel, and Turkish officials have been enunciating the exact terminology as regards the Syrian frontier since 2015 at least.

But in last spring —after Erdogan’s party the AKP lost a number of seats, including the municipalities of Ankara and Istanbul— the Turkish president and his officials doubled on referring to the safe zone. Other actors in the Syrian conflict appeared to turn a deaf ear so far.

“Our wish is to reach an agreement on the safe zone and put it into action as soon as possible. Otherwise, we will have to do what is necessary by ourselves,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in last July.

In 1998, Turkey had reached a similar deal with Syria —the Adana agreement— following a diplomatic crisis and clashes in the Turkish-Syrian borders. The Adana agreement required shutting down PKK paramilitary training camps in northern Syria and gave Turkey the right to intervene within a depth of 6km in Syrian territory along the whole border.

The 10-point agreement of Sochi is analogous to the Adana one, except for its greater proportions. President Erdogan first initiated the Safe Zone project as we know now in the United Nations in late September this year. With a map in hands, he showed a buffer zone that would run 30km deep into Syrian lands and some 480km along the border.

“Operation Peace Spring”

President Erdogan insisted that Turkey’s objective of establishing the buffer zone – also called “Peace Corridor” – was that of humanitarian measures. When proposing his idea in the United Nations, he said Turkey aimed at resettling some 2 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey in towns located within the Safe Zone.

Turkey currently hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, more than any other neighbouring nation (920,000 in Lebanon, 655,000 in Jordan and 229,000 in Iraq). President Erdogan often threatened to “open the gates of Europe” to the refugees if the European Union calls Turkey’s recent military campaign in Syria an invasion.

Moreover, Turkey dubbed its incursion in northeast Syria “Operation Peace Spring”, and President Erdogan, with this approach, sought not only an international approval, but also that of some Turkish voters who have shown increasing resentment against Syrian refugees amid economic difficulties.

On the same Tuesday of November 5, a survey published by Turkish pollster Metropoll showed President Erdogan’s approval among Turks surged during October (the month in which the cross-border incursion was set off after President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeast Syria).

The survey indicated that the Turkish president’s approval rate among the people rose by 3.7 points to 48% (the highest rate for the president since his re-election last year), whereas his disapproval rate fell by 9.3 points to 33.7% (the lowest since 2016, when President Erdogan underwent a failed coup).

A Conflict-torn “Peace Corridor”

But despite the emphasis on the incursion’s humanitarian and peace-related facet, the areas that fall within the buffer zone currently stand as Syria’s most conflicted. Thousands of Kurdish families fled their homes after Turkey advanced in its incursion.

Some of the raids the Turkish forces have carried out were said to have hit civilians.

The YPG militia has long controlled the area and served as an armed wing to the PYG (Democratic Union Party), a Kurdish party that formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with other political factions in 2015 to fight Islamic State in Syria.

Turkey considers both the YPG and PYG terrorist groups because of their ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been in sporadic conflicts with Turkish authorities since 1984.

By displacing hundreds of thousands of Kurds through conflict and resettling Syrian refugees in areas they are not necessarily from, analysts say, Turkey will also remodel the regional demographics in northeast Syria.

The Kurdish forces have controlled the northeastern region of Syria since 2013, when al-Assad’s forces were driven south in fights against Islamic State. The Kurds also controlled areas in the northwest, such as al-Bab, Jarabulus and Afrin, but Turkey seized those areas after a number of attacks in 2016 and 2018.

For Ankara, having a Kurdish autonomous region at close quarters is a substantial threat, as the whole region could quickly constitute a rear base for the PKK.

Al-Assad’s Bitter Victory

Al-Assad’s regime condemned Turkey’s violation of Syrian territory, yet paradoxically benefits from the Sochi agreement insofar as its plan helps his government forces to regain territories conceded to the Kurds during the war.

The Sochi agreement stated that YPG forces should retreat from the Safe Zone and that Turkey would hold control of an area covering Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn (where Turkey said it would resettle 2 million refugees).

For Russia, which has long vouched for al-Assad’s government, the priority is to turn the tide by helping the Syrian government to regain territory in hopes of reconstituting a major regional ally.

Before Turkey’s incursion, the Syrian government only had about 60% of national territories. Regaining the areas the Kurds held can constitute up to 75% of Syrian land.

As both Turkey and al-Assad’s regime engage in a race to seize territory pushing back Kurdish forces, the Kurds’ aspirations to form an autonomous Kurdistan after the fall of Islamic State seem to be trailing off.