‘Safe zone’ calls for Syrian refugees in an unsafe country

Turkey has long sought “safe zones” in northern Syria for displaced refugees, but the US-led coalition against DAESH has not clarified its stance on Ankara’s plan. Now, it seems Germany is ready to join Turkey in establishing “safe zone(s)”.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A refugee runs under heavy rainfall at a makeshift camp for refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, on April 24, 2016.

Updated Apr 26, 2016

Turkey has consistently defended a plan to establish safe areas and no-fly-zones in northern Syria, long before Syrian refugees started knocking on Europe’s gates and DAESH waged attacks against civilians in Turkey and Europe. But the plan did not receive much attention from major Western countries until large refugee flows began to reach the borders of western European countries and DAESH suicide bombers targeted European capitals.

The Turkish plan aims to address two main problems which are the growing refugee issue and DAESH’s continuing existence in northern Syrian territories. And to these problems, it is obvious that both Turkey and European countries need an urgent solution.


First of all, the growing population of refugees in Turkey and Europe escalate tension in respective border areas and at the same time inside the countries. Secondly and more imminently, DAESH armed groups, possibly taking direct orders from their main headquarters of Raqqa in eastern Syria, indiscriminately target civilians in Turkey and Europe threatening the security and peace of the continent alongside with Turkey.

DAESH attacks in Turkey and Europe

More than 100 civilians have reportedly been killed by DAESH attacks in Turkey since July 2015. The latest DAESH attack in Turkey took place in late March when a DAESH-linked terrorist carried out a suicide attack in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, killing at least five people and wounding 39 others. In January, DAESH carried out another suicide bombing in central Istanbul which killed 11 tourists. In addition, in October 2015, 103 people were killed in a double DAESH suicide bombing attack in Ankara.

Alarmingly, DAESH has recently been targeting Kilis, a crucial border province in southern Turkey, with rocket shellings across the border from its controlled-territories since late January killing at least ten civilians and wounding scores of others. Turkish authorities said after each DAESH attack that its artillery units have retaliated to the rocket fire from Syria “in kind.” But it is clear that Turkey needs more effective ways to prevent DAESH’s rocket shelling to which cross-border artillery fire does not seem to be an exact solution.

DAESH has also recently showed that it has capacity to carry out deadly attacks on European soil even targeting its capitals like Paris and Brussels. At least 26 people were killed on March 22 in twin attacks on Brussels airport and a rush-hour metro train, triggering security alerts across western Europe and stopping a good deal of cross-border transport for a while.

In Paris, DAESH carried out a series of well-coordinated suicide attacks on November 13 on a scale which shocked the world, killing 130 people.

Refugee crisis

Syrian refugees escaping the violence in their country fled Syria in large numbers following the escalation of the Syrian Civil War in 2012. One of their most preferred destinations was neighbouring Turkey, which hosts the most Syrian refugees in the world according to registration records of the United Nations.

Turkey has also become a transit point for refugees aiming to reach European countries from Syria and Iraq because of its geography bridging the Middle East and Europe. Thousands of mostly Syrian refugees had last summer marched towards western European countries using a route through Greece-Macedonia-Serbia-Hungary-Austria from east to west, triggering a huge refugee crisis in the continent.

Only in 2016, more than 130,000 people have arrived Europe from Turkey while hundreds have died during risky crossings, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Turkey has itself spent nearly $10 billion of its own resources on the refugees whose number in the country has been climbing to 2.7 million people.

Eventually, Turkey and EU approved a deal in March intended on halting further refugee flows into Europe, promising visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, progress in its EU membership talks, and financial aid to the country for its record number of refugees.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been instrumental in developing the recent Turkey-EU deal and she is also very vocal in terms of its implementation process until now. She just visited a refugee camp with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on April 23, praising Turkish efforts along with EU Council President Donald Tusk and Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans.

During her high-profile visit, Merkel also voiced her support to Turkey’s ‘safe zone’ idea which she described as "zones where the ceasefire is particularly enforced and where a significant level of security can be guaranteed."

Turkey’s ‘safe zone’ plan

Turkey declares that its safe zone plan has been presenting a concrete resolution to both DAESH threat of attacks outside Syria and Iraq and the continuing refugee crisis. Ankara previously indicated that refugees who stay in Turkey and neighbouring countries could be settled in the “safe” areas which will be cleared from DAESH by Turkey and US-led coalition forces following effective operations against the group.

Therefore, safe areas could offer a solution to both the refugee crisis and the DAESH threat, Turkey thinks.

Turkish media extensively reported last summer that Turkey and US signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) determining allied military planning in order to clear DAESH forces from an area between Marea and Jarablus in northern Syria. The reports put the length of the area at 98 kilometres.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces will be deployed in the areas cleared from DAESH by the allied forces and Syrian refugees who stay in Turkey could be settled in the the cleared areas in a voluntary base according to the MOU.  

There have been various and conflicting reports on the dimensions of the safe zone because American and Turkish media have given different accounts on the length and depth of the region referring to their respective anonymous officials.  

It has previously been reported that the respective zone will be in a 110-kilometre long area along Syrian border between Azez and Jarablus which will be about 60 kilometres deep into the Syrian territory reaching the province of Aleppo.

However, Reuters reported that the area will be “a rectangle of border territory roughly 80 km (50 miles) long,” according to “officials familiar with the plans.”

The allies have also had some problems in naming the zone. Turkey usually prefers the term “safe zones” or “security zones” in order to describe the areas while the US does not seem to intend to use a specific term for the zones. Eventually, the allies have apparently settled with the term “ISIS-free zone,” which will be a kind of “de facto safe zone,” media reports speculated quoting offcials from both countries.

PYD factor

Turkey and the US have some other serious differences regarding the “zone” because it is also critically laid out between the two PYD-controlled Kobani and Afrin. Turkey considers the PYD as the Syrian branch of the PKK which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, NATO, the EU, and US, though US administration regards the same group as an ally in the fight against DAESH and rejects the notion that PYD has any connection with the PKK.

These differences have incrementally compounded to a growing tension between Ankara and Washington over US policy in northern Syria. The PYD is able to expand its controlled territories in northern Syria after the YPG, the militant wing of the PYD, captured Tel Abyad in mid-June 2015 from DAESH and joined its Kobane and Jazira regions. The PYD expansion against DAESH has strongly been supported by US-led air strikes until now.

On the other hand, Turkey aims to keep the expansion of PYD in check and has previously declared that Turkey will consider any incursion to the west of the Euphrates river in northern Syria along the Turkish border by the PYD as a “violation of the red line” which was set by one of the National Security Council meetings in late June 2015.

Making things more complicated for Ankara and Washington, Turkey has currently been in a fierce fight with PKK armed groups inside Turkey and has carried out a number of air strikes against PKK targets in northern Iraq after a two and a half year-long lull of violent clashes ended in July 2015 with renewed fighting which has continued on and off for more than 30 years, claiming more than 40,000 lives.

Therefore, Ankara vehemently opposes any PKK-linked group playing a prominent role in northern Syria where the PYD’s expansion along the Turkish border could potentially help the PKK further spread its armed struggle against security forces in its eastern and southeastern regions.

In Washington, notable Obama administration officials repeatedly announce that they respect Turkey’s territorial concerns in Syria and find its fight against PKK groups totally legitimate. US Ambassador to Turkey John Bass also said in early September that his country is not seeking to create a PYD-controlled corridor in northern Syria.

However, there have been credible reports from the region that the US military is arming the YPG forces against DAESH which was confirmed by the Pentagon in late October. But Bass recently denied this by saying the US is not arming the YPG at all. Turkey has consistently protested US-backing of the group saying that this could literally be considered as support to the PKK.

US-Turkey disagreement

It is clear that Washington has no intention of downplaying its relations with PYD as its envoy to the coalition against DAESH, Brett McGurk, openly visited in late January PYD-controlled territories in northern Syria, meeting with high-ranking representatives of the group.

Some "anonymous" officials in US administration have even speculated in US media accounts that Turkey has been raising the idea of the “safe zone” in order to create a pretext to invade northern Syria and crash YPG forces which the US does not see as a viable option at least for now.

US President Barack Obama rejected the safe zone proposal once again on April 24 during a press conference in Germany with Merkel, who has brought the idea back to life in recent days.

"The issue surrounding a safe zone in Syrian territory is not a matter of an ideological objection on my part," Obama declared.

"It's not a matter of me not wishing I could help and protect a whole bunch of people. It's a very practical issue about how do you do it?" the president said.

Who is willing to "put a bunch of ground troops inside of Syria," he asked.

It seems that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has an answer to that question.

He has recently criticised external interventions to the political crises Muslim countries have currently faced, during his opening speech at the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit, indicating that the Islamic world should develop its own internal solutions.

“We need to resolve our own problems. We should intervene [to the problems we face]. We do not intervene and others interfere [our own issues]. They interfere [regional issues] in order to get oil in the region. They are not aiming to secure peace there,” Erdogan said.

“We need to be very sensitive on this issue,” Erdogan underlined, pointing out that the Muslim world should have its own police force to deal with terror threats in the respective regions.

Author: Murat Sofuoglu