Turkey's proposed safe zone in Syria would address the refugee crisis

  • 20 Feb 2019

With the Syrian regime renewing its attacks on rebel-held Idlib province, the fear of another refugee influx looms large. To overcome the impending crisis, Ankara aims to create a secure zone where the internally displaced can be housed.

Newly displaced Syrian children arrive to a refugee camp in Atimah village, Idlib province, Syria on September 11, 2018. ( Khalil Ashawi / Reuters Archive )

Backed by Russia, the Syrian regime recently escalated its attacks on Idlib province, the last opposition enclave, increasing the prospect of another refugee crisis. Turkey, one of the guarantors of de-escalation zones in the province, along with Russia and Iran, has indicated that it will not shoulder yet another refugee inflow as the country has been hosting at least 3.5 million Syrians ever since the country’s civil war broke out in 2011. 

Recently, Ankara increased its lobbying efforts to negotiate for a safe zone in northern Syria where it could address its border security concerns emanating from the YPG presence and also resettle the growing refugee population. 

“The sole resolution of Syria-origin migration problem can not be seen to keep refugees in our borders. I am frankly and clearly saying that in the case of a new migration wave, we will no longer able to shoulder it by ourselves,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday. 

In the wake of the announcement of an American withdrawal from Syria, Turkey and the US have been negotiating on the terms of forming safe zones in the region to prevent the emergence of any political vacuum, which could be exploited by armed groups like Daesh and the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK.

The PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by both Washington and Ankara, has long fought a terror campaign against the Turkish state, claiming tens of thousands of lives in the country. 

Both countries have established a joint task force to reach a common understanding on the outstanding Syria issues, particularly the implementation process of the US withdrawal. 

"We are actively engaging with Turkey on this, and that is part of our efforts to ensure a safe withdrawal of United States forces and a stabilised northeast Syria," said Robert Palladino, a US State Department spokesman, on Tuesday during a press conference. 

"We take them into account in our activities and we have ongoing coordination. We're not going to discuss specifics on these talks, but they continue," Palladino emphasised. 

Despite recent US statements on the coordination between Washington and Ankara, both countries have different political agendas regarding the formation of safe zones in northern Syria, where the US has allied with the PKK-linked YPG. 

While US President Donald Trump wants to establish a safe zone between Turkey and the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), monitored by the US and other European allies in the region, mainly to protect the YPG, Ankara wants to take the lead and form a buffer zone in the contested region.

Turkey has recently increased its military presence along its Syria border. A Turkish military convoy is seen in the Turkish province of Hatay neighbouring Syria’s Idlib province on January 12, 2019.(Reuters)

“I think Americans and Turks have mainly reached an agreement on a safe zone in northern Syria. The disagreements are only concerning a few details,” said Mustafa Ali Mousto, a Syrian Kurdish lawyer from Kobani and a political activist.  

But Mousto, who left Syria in 2014 under the pressure from the YPG and moved to Turkey, believes that whether Turkey and the US agree or not, “the PKK will never leave the areas under its control without fighting”. 

With the eradication of much of the Daesh presence in the region, he said, the US government's focus has shifted from the terror organisation to Iran. 

“The US does not trust the PKK,” he said. 

In addition to escalating tensions in Idlib, which is located in northwestern Syria, people in the YPG-ruled northeastern Syria have suffered on many fronts. The SDF forces have arrested more than 100 people in Raqqa and Hasakah provinces since late January, according to the Syrian Network of Human Rights

“The main reason behind these arrests was the anti-SDF protests (in which Arabs participated) due to some practices committed by the SDF against locals,” Mousto told TRT World. 

The YPG has long been accused of fomenting demographic shifts by driving Arabs out of several Syrian territories and imposing its own militant view over other ethnicities, mainly the Kurds.