Even in the middle of the bloodiest days of the Syrian conflict, when thousands of refugees fled big cities like Homs, Aleppo, and the Damascus suburbs, the world did not hear about safe zones as we do today.
From the moment President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, Turkey has pressured the US to establish a so-called ‘safe zone’ in North-eastern Syria, demands that have escalated until this past month, when we began to hear from US officials that such a ‘safe zone’ is in the works.
This ‘peace corridor’ or ‘safe zone’ will encompass the heart of the areas liberated from Isis. The US has attempted to persuade Turkey to make peace with the Americans’ strongest local ally in the fight against Isis, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, and has promised to clear the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the SDF’s military wing, from Turkey’s borders. Nevertheless, Turkey is working to change the nature of Northeast Syria in a radical way and to keep it under its full control.
Turkish refusals of US proposals threatens to turn North-eastern Syria into another Afrin, a city now controlled by Turkish-backed militias. Turkey’s track record in Afrin suggests that the newly established US-backed safe zone, which has a Kurdish, Syriac and Armenian majority, will be subjected to fundamental transformations designed to reshape the region’s demographic composition.
The North-eastern areas of Syria, liberated from Isis only a year ago and the area where Turkey wants to establish a ‘safe zone’, were described last week by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), in a speech to United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington DC, as a safe region for the return of refugees. Senator Shaheen, who traveled to the region last summer alongside Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), said: “what I found when I got there was something that I was not at all expecting to see, and that was a North-eastern Syria seeing a return of refugees… We went into Manbij, walked through the marketplace… talked to the merchants… saw the farms that were beginning to come back - very rich farmland – met with some of the leaders in Manbij in a restaurant and sat down and talked with SDF commanders and the local Arab councils, and everywhere we went, what we heard from the Syrian people that we talked to was, ‘Please stay… we’re finally seeing some stability returned to the country.’”
Not far from North-eastern Syria, Afrin, once a Kurdish-majority city, has after a period of relative calm returned to instability. In March 2018, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) attacked and seized control of Afrin, expelling the SDF forces that had defended it from Isil. Only a week ago, a massive explosion rocked central Afrin, killing 5 civilians. Such explosions have become an almost weekly routine. Afrin’s economic, educational and civilian institutions are totally dominated by forces backed by Turkey. In early 2018, the Free Syrian Army looted houses in broad daylight. Dozens of archaeological sites in Afrin have been looted and more than 16,000 artifacts, most belonging to Afrin, are now found the Turkish museums. Afrin’s Catholics pled for assistance as Islamist groups backed by Turkey ransacked and vandalized their churches and drove them out of the city. Today, criminal gangs proliferate in the city, and people are kidnapped of the street and held for ransom. Refugees trying to access housing must pay bribes to Turkish-backed proxies. Syrian cities controlled by the FSA and other militias backed by Turkey are not only unsafe for their long-term Kurdish, Syriac and Armenian citizens, but also for Syrian Arab refugees from Homs, Aleppo and Damascus suburbs.
A ‘safe zone’ under Turkish control is rapidly becoming a reality not because of a pressing need but due to political maneuvering in Ankara and Washington. Erdogan wants to be able to boast about removing the Kurds from the borders, bolstering support among nationalists.
President Trump is willing to make concessions in order to fulfill his promise to withdraw US forces from Syria, something he hopes to achieve despite resistance from US diplomats and military officials, including the resignation of General Mattis, who warn about the threat that Isil continues to pose to the region and the world, if it were allowed to rebuild its Syrian bases, to the rest of the world.
Handing over areas of Northeastern Syria and the nearly 5 million people who were only two years ago under Isil’s control to Turkey and its proxies would be unwise and would pose serious ramifications for the region and the wider world. Idlib in North-west Syria, which is allegedly ruled by another Turkish proxy, the “The Syrian Interim Government,” is in reality under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an affiliate of al-Qaeda. HTS is imprisoning and killing Idlib’s citizens, calling them “infidels,” and all of Turkey’s attempts to remove al-Qaeda linked groups from the city have failed. Today Idlib and its 4 million civilians are under attack from Damascus and its Russian allies, which promises another bloody episode in the Syrian Civil War and another wave of refugees.
While Assad cannot use the pretext of fighting terrorism to take back the stable North-east from US backed forces, HTS control of Idlib allows him to justify his attacks on the city and its environs. Idlib was once controlled by the same Turkish-backed proxies that today control Afrin.
Already Damascus has made it clear that it regards any safe zone as a violation of its sovereign territory. If chaos, militias and even resurgent elements of Isil return to North Eastern Syria, Assad will have his pretext to attack the region which today is a safe haven for refugees that have fled his bloody campaigns in Syria’s cities.
For the moment, Russia does not mind the US surrendering its leverage over the oil-rich Northeast to Turkey, but it will absolutely find reasons to attack any zone controlled by the kinds of groups that Russia and the Assad government fought and defeated in Aleppo, Homs and other cities. All past experiences with such “zones” under Turkish control failed and these areas were soon subjected to attacks by the Syrian government and its Russian allies due to the presence of al-Qaeda.
The ‘safe zone’ that Turkey is pushing for is a safe zone in name only and is in fact the seed for the return of the civil war in Syria that has not yet ended.
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