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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Turkey and Northern Syria part two: a ‘safe zone’ which will not long be either

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

We had intended to publish this yesterday, 7 October 2019, but as news broke of the Trump administration’s decision to ‘stand aside’ and ‘allow’ Turkey to enter/invade Northern Syria, we felt that should take priority.

Here, we publish what was set to be yesterday’s piece, about the so-called ‘safe zone’ in Northern Syria, one of recent history’s worst ideas.

Connected closely to Turkey’s potential ‘entry into/invasion of’ Northern Syria, as analysed yesterday, is the so-called ‘safe zone’ the US and Turkish governments want to create in the region.

The major problem with the proposal – a problem we cannot see being overcome in any iteration of such a ‘zone’ – is that it poses a real likelihood of a mass slaughter on a scale not yet seen even in the bitter, multi-sided Syrian civil war to date.

i. what is the ‘safe zone’?

In short, the ‘zone’ would be a strip of land, 30km ‘deep’ by 480km long, along the Turkish border with Syria.

Even this was not originally agreed by the US and Turkish governments (the US government wanted it to be just 5km ‘deep’) but these figures now seem to be accepted and agreed by both nations.

ii. the ‘idea behind’ the ‘safe zone’

The original proposals for the ‘safe zone’ – at that time referred to as a ‘buffer zone’ – were made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the early years of the Syrian Civil War. By 2012, he and his government were concerned that a) Assad might react to Turkish support for a variety of rebel groups with attacks on Turkish towns on the border and b) that should Assad’s allies Russia and/or China become directly engaged in the war, this could increase the likelihood of attacks on Turkish soil.

This concern was not ‘fake’, and nor did it prove entirely incorrect. Assad repeatedly warned that Turkish ‘interference’ in the war would be regarded as an attack on Syria, and rocket attacks by IS in 2016-17 and the Kurdish YPG (though in the latter case it should be noted that this was in response to direct military action by Turkey against Kurdish forces in Afrin, Syria) in early 2018 on the border town of Kilis, proved that Turkish towns and civilians were in direct danger of attacks from Syria.

Equally, on 24 November 2015, a Russian military aircraft launched from Syria’s Khemeimim was shot down by Turkish forces when it – according to the Turkish government – entered Turkish airspace. The Russian government denied that its aircraft had ever entered Turkey – a claim undermined by a series of similar ‘accidental transgressions’ by the state’s aircraft around the world in 2015-16 – but even if this were true, the incident proved both the inability of the Turkish government to ‘safeguard’ its borders and its intense fear about this situation.

(in fact, this incident and its results was one of the major turning-points of the entire Syrian civil war, though that is not the topic at hand here).

The buffer zone was a sincere response to a genuinely-held fear of the Turkish government, though even then it was always a largely awful proposal, with very little possibility of ever succeeding.

The major flaws in the proposal were that it had very little international support, that the Turkish and US governments disagreed about what it would be for, that it was likely to trap Syrian men, women and children (who would otherwise have travelled to Turkey and/or beyond) in a place where they were a) unlikely to want to live and b) absolutely not going to be safe without significant military activity by both the Turkish and US armed forces, that Assad (and later, Russia) were absolutely opposed to it, and because people already lived in the ‘zone’ – the majority of them Kurdish people - and it was far from clear that they wished for it to exist, or to be joined there by ‘Arab’ Syrians from other parts of the state.

iii. ‘development’ of the concept

As noted above, the Turkish proposal was at first largely dismissed by the international community at large, primarily because it didn’t make any sense and, not unconnected, could also not be delivered.

While few people wanted Turkey to be attacked by Assad’s forces, it seemed to make little more sense to have a narrow policed buffer zone than to enforce a ‘no-fly zone’ in all Syrian air-space, and/or to simply have Assad’s legitimacy removed at international level.

In fact these two proposals were supported by large numbers of states, but were vetoed at UN Security Council level by Russia, which has consistently used its veto on Syria-related matters, even after 2015 when it entered the war as an active combatant. For balance, we could also point out that the US, for example, has consistently used its veto to prevent censure of Israel, which has been in direct breach of international law for close to 70 years.

As a result, Turkey began to speak of the ‘buffer zone’ in two new ways, in an attempt to gain greater international backing for the plan. First, it attempted to persuade the wider international community that it would be a ‘safeguard’ against Syrian refugees fleeing to the EU and elsewhere, and to the US it began to talk about it in terms of a putative ‘rebel free state’, where people could be trained to fight in resistance to Assad.

The former had little real impact: in 2013, the eastern Mediterranean was not a route large numbers of refugees were using, and in general, the EU in particular was not keen to be seen to be ‘preventing’ people escaping a dangerous and murderous dictator.

The latter was far more effective. While in 2013, it went far beyond the US’ willingness to engage in Syria at all, and this remained Barack Obama’s position until the end of his tenure as President, others in the administration, including John Kerry, then US Secretary of State, regarded the proposal with greater openness. In November 2014, Kerry said: ‘We should seriously consider the [Turkish] proposals for a [rebel] state in Northern Syria.’

We should note that in 2013, the Kurds were low on the list of the Turkish government’s priorities in Syria. It had signed a ceasefire agreement – and agreed to begin talks about a devolved Kurdish region in Turkey – with Turkey’s Kurdish PKK in March 2013, while IS (though it took Raqqa in the same month, to be pushed back before later completing the capture of the town in January 2014) had been more active until 2014 in Iraq than in Syria.

The ‘buffer zone’ was still a priority for Turkey mainly because it wanted a demilitarised gap between it and Assad’s Syria. But over the next 12-24 months, this priority – while certainly not disappearing – was at least joined by a second, and later a third.

iv. IS, refugees and Trump

In 2013, the mass movement of Syrian people to Turkey began. In 2013, the number of Syrian ‘people under temporary protection’ (Turkey, as a non-signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the rights of refugees, does not issue refugee status to anyone) rose by 1,294,631, from 224,655 to 1,519,286. In 2014, the number rose by 984,263, to 2,503,549. The figure today (8 October 2019) according to Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management is 3,671,553.

From January-June 2014, IS took large areas of Eastern and Northern Syria, despite the efforts of the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Democratic Force, the former a largely Arab anti-Assadist force (though with some Kurdish members) and the latter a primarily Kurdish ‘defence force’.

In September 2014, John Kerry announced a coalition against IS, which included Turkey, but was led in Syria by the SDF, largely with air ‘support’ provided by the US, UK, France and Turkey, the latter of which also carried out some ground attacks on IS. But Erdogan, increasingly unhappy that the YPG, which he and his government regards as a ‘terrorist organisation’, became increasingly unhappy that the US was arming YPG members through the SDF.

Along with Turkish raids on IS-held positions, the Turkish military also began to launch strikes on Kurdish-held positions in Northern Syria, and in Iraq. In this, it reflected the actions of the Russian air force, which announced it began carrying out strikes on IS positions in September 2015, but in fact launched 90 per cent of its missiles against FSA strongholds. The Turkish military struck IS positions far more often than Kurdish ones, at this stage.

With the PKK’s response to the Suruc bombing, the ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdish group broke down, and in the aftermath of Turkey receiving far less support than it had hoped and expected following the state’s military bringing down a Russian aircraft in November 2015, Erdogan began to speak more loudly, and more often, about the US ‘arming terrorists‘.

At this point, for the Turkish leader, the ‘buffer zone’ – now more often referred to as a ‘safe zone’ – was seen as a means of Turkey ‘controlling’ Kurdish ‘terrorists’ in Northern Syria.

But at the same time, the increasing successes of Kurdish resistance to IS (assisted by an international coalition) began to convince some within the US government that the ‘zone’ could be a reward for Kurdish people – effectively a semi- or absolutely-independent state governed by Kurds, who the US hoped would be loyal resistance against IS, and would also effectively provide a ‘buffer’ between Assad and Turkey.

Erdogan continued to call for the ‘zone’ to be created, but his hopes for it – a region ‘cleared’ of Kurdish people and influence – were now effectively the opposite of those of the only other state, the US, which shared any desire for it to be created. In any case, Russia continued to use its veto against any measures designed to reduce the power or ‘legitimacy’ (no ruler is ‘legitimate’ while bombing the people they are supposed to govern, or indeed civilians of any state) of Assad, making the concept an effective impossibility.

The idea – roundly criticised by almost all experts and commentators – was considered to have been dropped even when US presidential hopeful Donald Trump used it as part of his 2016 campaign, pretending it would ‘solve’ the issue of refugees leaving Syria, and effectively ‘end’ the war by enabling Syrian ‘rebels’ to live ‘in peace’.

Three years later, the idea now appears to be US government policy, almost to the extent it is Erdogan’s.

v. Syrians portrayed as a ‘burden’ on Turkey

In June this year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP lost the Istanbul local election to the main Turkish opposition party, the ‘liberal’ CHP.

This was a larger loss than it may have appeared, as although this was only a ‘local’ election, it was the first time a party containing Erdogan had lost control of the city since he became its mayor in 1994, while Istanbul is by far Turkey’s largest city and a centre of ‘patronage’ used by whichever party controls it.

The loss appeared – certainly to other leading members of AKP – to demand a ‘response’ from Erdogan, and he declared the party would be a ‘different entity’ as a result.

But the election had – in part – been won on the two parties’ differing attitudes towards Syrian people in Turkey: effectively AKP had for five years argued that Syrian people were a ‘burden’ but one Turkey must ‘shoulder’, while CHP countered that while they agreed Syrians are a burden, Turkey should have nothing to do with them and force them ‘back home’, even if into war.

In part, this opposition by CHP comes because of the fact that the party was founded by Ataturk, who wished Turkey to be a secular republic, and even as Erdogan praises Ataturk publicly, his AKP (whose name translates to the ‘Justice and Development Party’ – a formula it shares with Muslim Brotherhood political parties, though AKP is not officially affiliated to the Brotherhood) is largely agreed to have moved Turkey ever-closer to declaring itself a ‘Muslim nation’.

The CHP fears that Erdogan wishes to bring Syrians into Turkey so that there will be a strong Sunni Muslim vote, meaning that Turkey will become ever more Muslim and that AKP, as the main ‘backer’ of Syrians in Turkey, will win elections by ever-increasing margins.

Of course, CHP could have chosen to counter this by itself reaching out to the Syrian population. It is its fault it did not. In any case, following the devastation delivered to the Turkish economy by the crash of 2017-18, the portrayal of Syrians as a ‘burden’ – promoted by both AKP and CHP, albeit in different ways – convinced many Turkish people to vote ‘against’ Syrians, and therefore for CHP.

We should note here that Erdogan’s response has been predictable, and brutal. But it has also been unnecessary, a mistake, and a punishment for a ‘crime’ Syrian people have never committed.

Because far from being a ‘burden’ on Turkey, Syrian people have entered the Turkish economy, taken the lowest-paid jobs – two in every six Syrians in Turkey at present work, equivalent to two people in each family – in the process creating opportunities for Turkish people to be paid better and receive greater legal protection in their employment.

Syrian people have held down and reduced prices for consumer goods – including food and rent – in the parts of Turkey in which they have arrived, and there is wide agreement amongst economic researchers that they in fact prevented economic crashes which would otherwise have taken place in 2016, if not 2015.

We do not mention this to specifically criticise Turkey itself – or even its government and leading opposition party. All nations need to look very closely at what benefit, as well as any supposed ‘burden’ is brought to them by refugees. This is particularly true in Greece at present, but also in France, German, indeed almost every EU member state (including the UK) except Sweden.

But the fact is – and we will come back to this on another occasion – overall, Syrian people (as well as Afghans, Iraqis and people from Pakistan, though unlike Syrians none of these are allowed to register for temporary protection in Turkey) have been a benefit to Turkey. Just as they can and will be, given the opportunity, in every other place to which they have fled.

A major part of Erdogan’s response to Istanbul, however, has been to ‘reignite’ the idea of the Syrian ‘safe zone’, but this time as a place into which he will force Syrian people currently seeking safety in Turkey.

He has announced plans to move ‘at least two million’ Syrian people to the ‘zone’, threatening the EU that he will ‘open the floodgates’ so that ‘millions’ of Syrians will enter the EU if it does not back his plan, and on Thursday 3 October describing Syrian people once again as a ‘burden’ which Turkey ‘cannot host forever’, while outlining his plans to the Turkish parliament.

We have already noted elsewhere that there are no ‘floodgates’ and that Erdogan does not ‘control’ a mass of Syrian men, women and children sitting on suitcases waiting for him to ‘let them go’.

We have also noted that the EU does need to be prepared for the fact that several million Syrians currently in Idlib, Turkey and Lebanon will almost certainly consider moving to Europe as Lebanese persecution of Syrian people continues and it becomes ever more certain that Assad will win the civil war he started, meaning they cannot return home.

We will return, briefly, to what the EU should do, but we must also note that since 6 September 2019, when Erdogan last threatened to ‘open the gates’ if the EU does not support his plan, the EU has not supported it and he has not ‘opened the gates’: Erdogan enjoys having the threat as a card to use too much to actually use it on something he (may) deliver another way.

However, with Erdogan and his government now believing it ‘must’ be ‘tough on Syrians’ in the way CHP has demanded, the ‘safe zone’ has now become a plan to cram more than two million Syrian people into a zone 30km by 480km, along the North of Syria.

Of course, it should be noted that such a ‘zone’, if developed, would also serve to ‘demographically-alter’ large parts of Northern Syria in which Kurdish people are the majority, especially if, as in yesterday’s update, Turkey invades the regions and removes Kurdish people from it.

Simultaneously, if successful – which it will not and almost cannot be – it would still serve as a ‘buffer zone’ preventing attacks from Assad and those loyal to him on Turkish towns along the tow states’ border.

For the US government under Trump, the idea of a Kurdish ‘semi-state’ as a ‘reward’ for Kurdish people’s part in resisting and overcoming IS appears to have been ditched, but Trump would argue that he campaigned on the grounds of delivering the ‘safe zone’ and withdrawing the US from ‘foreign wars’ (even, it seems, the rare ones in which it finds itself on the ‘right side – against the mass murder of civilians).

This may not be the ‘safe zone’ Trump envisaged, but he is willing to settle and claim to have ‘delivered’ another ‘promise’ to the ‘American people’ regardless of its potential local, regional or international impact. Such is the world with Donald Trump as a leading ‘politician’.

vi. the (main) problem

The problem with the concept of the ‘safe zone’, however, is not that it is based on a false portrayal of Syrian people as a ‘burden’ on Turkey, or even that this is only one of three reasons Erdogan now wants to make it happen, with one of the other three the forcing of Kurdish men, women and children from their homes to make way for more than two million people who don’t even want to live there – as bad as the latter absolutely is.

It is that the idea is extraordinarily bad, and that any degree of analysis based on reality reveals that the ‘safe zone’ will be ‘safe’ for an extremely short time, and a ‘zone’ for only slightly longer.

It is, in short, a recipe for mass murder.

As noted above, this is true even if we were to ignore the Turkish government’s seeming intent to kill and forcibly remove from their homes, the region’s current Kurdish population.

Setting that aside – though once again, this certainly does seem to be Erdogan’s current plan, unless Donald Trump in his ‘wisdom’ plans to ‘once again’ ‘wreck’ the Turkish economy (which he has not, in fact, ever previously done) – the plan involves first removing Syrian men, women and children from their current homes.

The grim truth is that for many Syrian people in Turkey, those homes – and certainly also the jobs their inhabitants have taken to pay for them – will not be very sorely missed.

But the idea that instead of finding them better homes and more rewarding employment, a ‘solution’ to a non-existent problem is to force them into a place they do not wish to be, on the edge of a state they have escaped in order to save their lives, still run by the man who would have murdered them, is not only ludicrous, but horrific.

Even then, however, this is still not the major problem with the proposed ‘safe zone’.

The major problem with the plan is something which does not even appear to have been considered by Erdogan or Trump: Bashar al-Assad.

Assad’s government is on record as saying that it would rather have a population of ‘10m loyal Syrians’ than accept back any ‘traitors’: those who opposed and those who ran from Assad and his armed forces. The pre-war population of Syria was 21m people.

This is important because it means that not only do the Syrian men, women and children – or at least the majority of them – now in Turkey not want to go back to Syria, and far less to a part of Syria in which they never lived and so could in no sensible way be regarded as their ‘home’, neither does Assad, who is about to win a bitter and bloody Civil War, want them there.

Assad has already stated that he regards any putative ‘safe zone’ to be an ‘affront to Syria’s sovereignty’.

And given that in this war, Assad and his allies have bombed homes, hospitals, schools, even camps for internally-displaced people, as well as crowded market-places, and is even as we speak bombing civilians he forced into the principality of Idlib, in order to ‘reclaim’ Idlib as ‘his’, there is absolutely no reason at all he would not bomb a so-called ‘safe zone’.

Equally, Assad has not, to date, bombed civilians ‘until he reaches victory’ but in much the same way as Franco did in the Spanish Civil War: to wipe out all opposition to him.

The only possible safeguards for such a zone are: a US military presence – but the US is withdrawing its troops and Trump claims to want to end US involvement in ‘costly’ foreign wars, so such protection from the US seems extremely unlikely; a Turkish promise to defend the zone, but Turkey has already proven incapable of resisting Russian military might; or a UN pledge to defend the zone and the people within it, but the ‘zone’ is not the UN’s idea, and it is almost impossible to imagine Russia not vetoing such a pledge as soon as it reached the Security Council.

So the Turkish plan, now seemingly backed by the US, is to force more than two million Syrian people into a part of Syria Assad – who has said he does not want those people in ‘his’ Syria, and who has consistently broken international law in his efforts to murder civilians in Syria, including using chemical weapons and targeting civilians in their homes and in camps for displaced people – has made clear he will not accept being peeled off from the state.

It is a recipe for a slaughter on an almost unprecedented scale, and the ‘safe zone’ will remain ‘safe’ for almost no time at all, and a ‘zone’ for little longer than that.

vii. what should we/the EU do?

The Turkish military will almost certainly enter Northern Syria very soon. Perhaps as early as this week.

There is little we can do to prevent that, though we must speak out against it often and as noisily as we can.

But we do have a little more time before Turkey is actually ready to force Syrian men, women and children to their almost certain death.

We must make sure the EU is aware that, regardless – and indeed quite apart from – anything Erdogan can or threatens to do (and they are not the same thing) millions of Syrian people, as well as Afghani people and many others, are about to be forced to consider their next move.

We must use our experiences and voices not just to prepare to receive those who do come, and help them find safe places to live, but also to ensure governments up to and including EU-level are aware of what will happen if they do not help.

In 2014-15, the EU missed an enormous opportunity, to take control of and make safe the routes by which refugees travel, give them safe, comfortable places to live while their asylum applications were processed, and to help them find new, productive lives, which benefit them, their families and the EU as a whole.

We have a similar opportunity now, one we must not miss again. If we do, the result will be death: at sea between Turkey and Greece, on the roads between the same locations, and in a strip of Northern Syria, 30km by 480km.

We have an opportunity to avoid the mass slaughter of millions of innocent men, women and children. As if that were not enough reason to act, we can also benefit from the skills, the endeavour, the passion and the ability of those people.

It is our duty to learn from the mistakes of the last five years. If we repeat them, millions of people will die.

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