A safe zone for Syrian refugees — so near, yet so very far

People wave as a US military vehicle travels through Kurdish-dominated Amuda province in northern Syria, bordering Turkey 

Six years after Turkish President Recep Erdogan floated the idea of creating a safe zone in northern Syria, it still remains a chimera. When the Turks lobbied for the zone, notably in 2013 and 2015, the Obama administration rebuffed them on the plea that protecting it would entail putting a significant American force on the ground, drawing the US deeper into the conflict in Syria. But Turkish officials pinned hopes that their previous efforts would fare better under President Donald Trump. 

Indeed, Candidate Trump proposed to “take a big swatch of land” for “the right price” and build “a big beautiful safe zone” that will make Syrian refugees “happier.” After reaching the White House, one of the first things he promised was that the US will “absolutely do safe zones in Syria”. He hadn’t mapped where zones would be located, but claimed that he had asked the Pentagon and State Department to draft plans. That was where the trail tapered off. Trump has not yet transferred that instruction into an executive order.

To be sure, Ankara has reason to be wary of the agreement reached on Wednesday to establish a joint operation centre in Turkey to coordinate and manage a planned safe zone in northeast Syria. The US readout on the agreement contained 3 points: a) “the rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns”; b) “to stand-up a joint operations center in Turkey as soon as possible in order to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone together”; and, c) “that the safe zone shall become a peace corridor, and every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country.” 

The readout is delightfully vague; no timeline for the buffer zone’s implementation or its geographical scope has been given. What spurred Washington into action was an explicit threat by Erdogan last Sunday to invade Kurdish-run north-eastern Syria within the next fortnight, creating a conundrum for Washington. The lack of clarity in Wednesday’s agreement on the specifics— the route that such a corridor might take, how deep it would extend into Syria and so on — suggests that the US is merely buying time. 

The US cannot afford to commit to a plan that could hurt its alliance with the region’s Kurds who are of course the only allies Pentagon is left with on the Syrian chessboard. Ankara claims it would use the newly established safe zone to return Syrian refugees inside its borders (who are, in fact, already being rounded up in recent weeks to be returned to Syria.)

The Turkish public opinion increasingly resent the 4-million strong Syrian refugees’ presence as a burden on the economy and social services. On the other hand, the Syrian Kurds allege that Turkey is actually working on a master plan to demographically reshape the Kurdish-dominated border regions as an Arab stronghold. The truth lies somewhere in between. 

There is another security dimension since the Kurdish forces are guarding two large detention camps and two prisons, which hold more than 130,000 suspected ISIS members or supporters and if a conflict erupts between the Turkish and Kurdish forces, the terrorists may regroup and regenerate. 

Fundamentally, Turkey considers the Syrian Kurds, who are US’ allies, as terrorists who are ideologically and militarily affiliated to the Kurdish separatist group PKK operating in Turkey and unless this contradiction is reconciled, which is easier said than done, a convergence between Washington and Ankara on the safe zone will remain problematic.  

Then, there are quite a few thorny issues, too. What about the heavy weapons supplied by the US to Syrian Kurds, which Washington had pledged to retrieve once the war against ISIS got over? Again, the stated US intention was to finish the war against ISIS and quit Syria, but it has switched policy — and now it has unfinished business against Iran.

All the same, it is difficult for Turkey to invade northern Syria to and confront the Syrian Kurds, ignoring the US warnings against any such move. Nor is the US in a mood to dump the Syrian Kurds who are its only trump cards to pressure the Syrian government to make concessions in any future settlement. Indeed, the regions along the Euphrates under the US/Kurdish control also happen to be rich in oil deposits and water resources. 

The US plan is to weaken President Assad by creating an autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Washington seeks a loose federal set-up in Syria where it can retain influence in future. Turkey, on the contrary, is keen that Syria must remain a unitary state. The emergence of a Kurdish autonomous region within Syria along its border — similar to what happened in Iraq — is completely unacceptable to Turkey. The US thinks it can create a firewall between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey but Ankara won’t buy it. 

Despite the US threat to take action against Turkey if it invaded the Kurdish regions of northern Syria, Turkey estimates that Trump cannot afford a shooting war with it in Syria. Erdogan is likely trying to create a split between Trump on one side and Pentagon and the State Department on the other side. Erdogan factors in that the US cannot turn against Turkey, given the base facilities it provides for NATO in Incirlik, where the US has stockpiled dozens of nuclear missiles. 

Without doubt, Russia and Damascus as well as Iran are watching how the US-Turkish tango plays out. Clearly, none of these protagonists is enthusiastic about the idea of safe zones — although Turks are no longer marketing the safe zones as part of a broader effort to topple Assad, a policy aim they have largely abandoned, but as a way to stem the refugee flow to the West. And all three — Moscow, Damascus and Tehran —would rather see the US exit Syria altogether. Moscow and Tehran are also supportive of Damascus’ intention to regain control over the entire territory of Syria. 

Conceivably, any further deterioration in US-Turkey relations will be keenly watched in Moscow and Tehran. The planned trilateral summit of Turkey, Russia and Iran in Ankara, originally slated for August, becomes an occasion to hear the Turkish narrative on what lies ahead. Meanwhile, the geopolitical backdrop is simply stunning. 

A commentary by the Voice of America on Tuesday was titled Can Turkey Be a Trusted NATO Partner? It says: 

“Erdogan’s warming ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his purchase of an advanced Russian air-defense system — as well as his pursuit of strategies in Syria that conflict with those of other NATO partners and his support for Islamist causes— are straining Turkey’s ties with the West to the point of rupture… Pentagon officials also have expressed frustration with signs of an Erdogan rapprochement with Iran.” 

“There’s no formal mechanism for a NATO member to be expelled from the defense organization. Nonetheless, in Washington and European capitals, talk is mounting among policy-makers and influential foreign-policy analysts about whether Turkey has any future in NATO and whether the time is coming for it to leave or for its membership to be suspended.”