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6 Obstacles Hinder Establishment of ‘Safe Zone’ on Syrian-Turkish Border

6 Obstacles Hinder Establishment of ‘Safe Zone’ on Syrian-Turkish Border

Saturday, 19 January, 2019 - 08:45
Turkish soldiers are pictured in a village near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 24, 2018. (Reuters)
London - Ibrahim Hamidi
US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw his forces from Syria has revived talks about the establishment of a “safe zone” on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Ankara’s former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had previously made the proposal on November 29, 2011. The suggestion was welcomed by the Syrian opposition at the time after it had witnessed the Libyan experience that saw the ouster of former longtime ruler Moammar al-Gaddafi.

In 2012, then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had supported the idea, saying it was “among Ankara’s options.”

As the Syrian conflict dragged on, the regime withdrew from Kurdish regions in the North and they were replaced with Kurdish forces.

On October 9, 2014, Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested forming a safe and no-fly zone in the area. He explained that it was necessary for “humanitarian reasons and ensure the success of the battle against ISIS.” Moscow responded by saying that such a demand requires the approval of the United Nations Security Council.

Two weeks after the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Erdogan again reiterated the demand for the formation of a safe zone. He made a similar demand on February 23, 2017, saying it was necessary to set up a 4,000 or 5,000 kilometer area that is free of terrorists.

On January 25, 2017, Trump announced that the administration would set up a safe zone to take in Syrian refugees. Soon after his announcement of the pullout of US forces from Syria on December 19, he called for setting up the 32 kilometer safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Erdogan said that Turkey would set up the zone between its borders and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions. On January 16, however, Moscow voiced its rejection of the idea. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that the “best and only solution lies in transferring control of these regions to the Syrian regime.”


Since Trump’s pullout announcement, contacts have intensified between Ankara and Washington over Syria. Trump and Erdogan have had telephone calls and Cavusoglu is set to meet his American counterpart Mike Pompeo on February 6. Erdogan will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday to brief him on his Trump talks.

The talks between the Turkish, Russian and American officials will focus on the following obstacles:

- Depth of the safe zone: Ankara wants the area to reach 32 kilometers into Syria and stretch 460 kilometers from Jarablus to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Washington has agreed to a depth of 10 kilometers, while Moscow proposed that the depth reach between 5 and 10 kilometers. Head of the YPG, meanwhile, demanded that the safe zone lie 32 kilometers deep into Turkish territory.

- Protecting the zone: Turkey wants the zone to be “secure,” meaning it wants it to be a no-fly zone, contrary to Russia’s wishes. The Kurds have backed Ankara’s demand because it will protect them from its air strikes.

- Syrian regime presence: Ankara has been adamant in rejecting the presence of regime forces in the safe zone. Officials explained that the regime would cooperate with the Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) would resume attacks in southeastern Turkey. Ankara has proposed that Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraqi Kurdistan be deployed in the safe zone. Moscow has meanwhile, said that the regime is entitled to send forces to the area because it falls within Syrian territory. Several Russian officials have stated that the regime must fill the void left by the departing US forces. The Kurds have supported cooperating with the regime against Ankara.

- The Kurds: On December 23, Trump contacted Erdogan to ensure the safety of the YPG after the American withdrawal. His national security adviser John Bolton soon after warned Ankara against attacking the Kurds, prompting Erdogan’s ire. Ankara considers the YPG and PKK as terrorist. It says that the YPG does not represent the Kurdish people. Russia has meanwhile been trying to mediate to reach a solution that ensues the interests of Turkey and the Kurds. The YPG is concerned that a safe zone will leave predominantly Syrian Kurdish regions, such as Kobane and Ras al-Ain, under Turkish control.

- Managing the zones: Ankara has proposed the formation of local councils that include members who are not affiliated to the YPG. Moscow has backed the suggestion, while the Kurds have said that current councils east of the Euphrates River are composed of local figures.

- Ties with Damascus: Ankara does not want the safe zones to come under Damascus’ direct control, while Moscow wants the opposite. For their part, the Kurds want a recognition of their “autonomous administration”. They also want a share of natural resources and seek the merger of the YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces with the Syrian army.


It is believed that understandings are possible between Ankara and Moscow and they would be vital in setting up the border safe zone. Turkey was able to set up the Euphrates Shield region between Jarblus and al-Bab in northern Aleppo at the end of 2016. It also captured Afrin in early 2018 and set up de-escalation zones in Idlib in September 2018.

Should Russia and Turkey, as well as the US, agree again on Syria, then Ankara would witness the establishment of a border zone that extends from the Mediterranean to eastern Syria. This will expand Turkey’s influence and isolate Kurds in northern Syria from Kurds in southern Turkey, thereby crushing their dreams of a Kurdish region. Ankara has had success in such missions when it isolated the Kurds in the eastern Euphrates and barred them any access to the Mediterranean.

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