Perspective on Turkish zones in Syria

Perspective on Turkish zones in Syria

A news story featured in the New York Times about the Turkish-controlled zones in northern Syria has been in talks recently. The story quotes Jarir Sulaiman, a once-wealthy landowner in the village of Khiara in the south of Damascus and now living in one of the Turkish-controlled zones in Syria, saying “we won’t go back to our villages until Turkey gives us protection” and “we will not be able to survive without Turks.” The story reports on the relative safety of the zones and how there is still a long way to go in terms of improving the lives of their residents.

I understand that some readers had a problem with the political dimension of the story, but the economic and humanitarian dimension is what I want to focus on here. At the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), we have been dealing with these issues for the better part of a decade now.

In 2016, 2018 and 2019, facing heavy Western criticism, the Turkish military has carved out zones in northern Syria that now house around 6 million Syrians, including internally displaced persons (IDPs). Take, for instance, the Syrian province of Idlib. It is located next to Hatay, with a population of 4.2 million, 2 million of whom are IDPs, and nearly a million reside in 1,304 camps. In Idlib, much like in the Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch and Peace Spring
Zones, the Turkish Armed Forces are the only international force on the ground protecting 6 million Syrians from the Syrian regime forces and their Russian and Iranian allies.

Add almost 4 million Syrians already in Turkey, integrating themselves to the Turkish labor market and building lives for themselves, with around 15,000 Syrian-partnered and owned enterprises, and we have around 10 million Syrians living under some form of Turkish protection. Syria’s population is 17 million. This means that today, more Syrians live under the Turkish state’s influence than under that of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

In the Turkish-controlled zones inside Syria, schools, hospitals and bakeries are open while security has been partially restored despite the continuing terrorist attacks. While problems with the militia-cum-police surface every now and then, there are Syrian local councils that are managing activities on the ground. However, living conditions need to be improved rapidly. One of the priorities is to strengthen the health care sector, as 10 percent of the near 18,000 COVID-19 cases have been recorded among camp residents. Cramped living conditions are counterproductive for social distancing. The severe shortage of personal protective equipment, respirators and hospital beds has made it even more difficult to care for the sick.

What Turkey has been doing inside Syria to restore life is important. If the objective is to stop the flow of refugees from Syria to first Turkey and then to Europe, then the living conditions in the Turkish-controlled areas must be improved further. Turkey has proven so far, with the help of decades-long NATO training in conflict areas like Afghanistan, that safe zones inside Syria can be created and maintained.

March 15, 2021, will mark the first decade of the Syrian uprisings that grew into the civil war we have today. While a political solution to the crisis is not in sight, the humanitarian situation on the ground is dreadful. Now is the time to start thinking about ways to improve living conditions in the already existing safe zones. Special area development plans, as envisaged in India for instance, could be a springboard -- considering the 500 companies operating in the zones and conducting cross-border trade with Turkey. It is time to scale up what has been achieved
in the Turkish zones with limited resources.

Turkey is not alone in providing safety to the forcibly displaced people, as 86 percent of the 79.5 million people forcibly displaced in the world are already hosted by neighboring developing countries. Forced displacement is first and foremost a regional problem. Yet, the problem cannot be contained without global cooperation.

We must now revisit this problem to see what is working and what isn’t. Turkey seems to have proven so far that the idea of safe zones inside Syria, which has been heavily criticized in the international community, can work. The experiment could use more global attention, which could bring in the necessary resources to scale up the humanitarian effort and create economic development that could make a difference in the lives of tens of millions of people.