A short history of Turkey’s demand for a safe zone
Archives show that a need to create a safe zone was first voiced by senior Turkish government officials in March 2012. At that time, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey was just more than 10,000 but there were serious concerns on the continued flow of Syrians as a result of intensified violence in the country.
Turkey had brought the idea to set up a safe zone in the northwestern part of the border as the Syrians were entering Turkey mostly from Hatay province and its Reyhanlı district. The proposal had included setting up refugee camps in the designated area and a no-fly zone but had not received a warm reception from Western and prominent Arab nations who were altogether making the Friends of Syria Group.
There were three main reasons for rejecting the proposal: It was still the very early days of the Syrian crisis and many of these countries failed to see one of the bloodiest humanitarian tragedies looming in Syria. Secondly, they were reluctant to deploy troops and undertake a civilian responsibility as well as to spend money for a crisis far away from their borders. Thirdly, Russian and Chinese opposition to these initiatives was blocking a required resolution from the U.N. Security Council.
Bringing back its plans to create a safe zone in Syria to the international forum took three years and more than two-and-a-half million refugees for Turkey.
In 2015, Turkey had to update its plans for a safe zone following the drastically and dramatically changed picture in Syria. The country has already been in a bloodbath, with more than a million having been killed and half of the nation having had to flee the violence.
The vacuum in the eastern parts of Syria was filled by ISIL, one of the most dangerous radical jihadist terror bands which has been storming the region and committing inhuman crimes. It has soon turned into a global terror network as its operatives had conducted attacks in many parts of the Western world as well as in Turkey. Furthermore, ISIL had captured the control of hundreds of kilometers of the strip of the Turkish-Syrian border and started to pose a serious threat against the Turkish people.
Under these conditions, an international coalition under the leadership of the United States was formed to combat ISIL and began negotiations with Turkey for the use of the Turkish airbases in İncirlik and Diyarbakır in the anti-ISIL fight.
In return, Turkey had demanded launching a joint cross border operation into Syria against ISIL and the YPG as well as creating a safe zone and a no-fly zone. Although Turkey opened its bases to the coalition aircraft, negotiations for a safe zone between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the former U.S. President Barack Obama did not yield results at the time. The U.S. had chosen the YPG as its local ally to conduct ground combat against ISIL despite Turkey’s strong opposition. The second was the entry of the Russian military into the Syrian stage in the fall of 2015 in a move to change all the equations. The third was Turkey’s downing of a Russian aircraft in November 2015 which triggered a deep crisis between Ankara and Moscow until they could reconcile in August 2016.
The current version of the safe zone came to the fore after U.S. President Donald Trump suggested setting up a 20-mile deep safe zone in northeastern Syria in January 2019. It was part of his decision to let the U.S. troops pull out from Syria as the war against ISIL was almost won.
However, it took only a few weeks for Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community as well as influential senators to convince Trump that this idea was wrong and that troops must stay in Syria. As a result of this major U-turn in Washington, Pentagon has deliberately stalled on talks with Turkey on the safe zone. Starting from early spring in 2019, Turkey has begun to use a very harsh language against its ally and threatened that it won’t hesitate to launch its own incursion into the eastern Euphrates if the U.S. drags its feet in setting a safe zone. The rhetoric was supported by months-long major military deployment on the eastern parts of the Turkish-Syrian border in a powerful signal of unilateral military action.
In early August, Turkey and the U.S. announced a deal on the safe zone with details to be agreed in further talks. The U.S. sought to dissuade Turkey from a unilateral military action but the implementation of the road map at a snail pace is far from satisfying the Turkish government. Concerned by U.S. efforts to delay the process, Erdoğan and all other Turkish officials reiterated the government’s determination to remove the region from terrorists.
Turkey’s plans for the safe zone are much complex than the previous ones. In addition to removing the YPG from its borders, it wants to create new residential areas in the safe zone, so that two million Syrian refugees can settle in their homeland. The plan, therefore, requires the accomplishment of safe zone talks with the U.S. and an agreement with the European nations which are considered as the sponsors of this costly project.