US President Donald Trump’s pledge to order safe zones in Syria has stirred a mix of hope and concern in Turkey, which has long advocated the establishment of a US-backed no-fly zone in its war-wracked southern neighbor.
“We have seen the US president’s request for conducting a study [on safe zones]. What’s important are the results of this study and what kind of recommendation will come out,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu told reporters.
“Setting up safe zones is something Turkey has advocated from the start. The best example is Jarablus,” Muftuoglu observed. He was referring to the first town on the Turkish border to be liberated from the Islamic State by a Turkish-led rebel force last year in an ongoing offensive called Operation Euphrates Shield.
Trump said on Jan. 25 that he will “absolutely do safe zones in Syria” for Syrians displaced by the six-year conflict. But he did not elaborate on where in Syria he envisaged establishing them. The Pentagon and the State Department have come up with such plans in the past, though they were never approved as they would have required putting significant numbers of US forces on the ground and in harm’s way.
But the situation has changed dramatically since Russia intervened in Syria in September and the United States deployed several hundred special operations forces in the Kurdish-controlled northeast of the country to jointly battle IS.
When Turkey first lobbied the previous administration for a safe zone, it didn’t just have refugees in mind. Ankara wanted the zone to also serve as a base for rebels that it was supporting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Turkey’s policy has also shifted in recent months as it seeks to repair relations with Russia. The ties took a nosedive after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over Syria in November 2015.
Turkey appears to have abandoned its campaign to overthrow Assad and has been cooperating with Russia and Iran to help consolidate a cease-fire between the rebels and the regime. The warring sides came together for the first time this week in the Kazakh capital Astana, but progress has been limited due to rebel infighting and deep distrust between the rebels and the regime.
Muftuoglu’s comments signal that Turkey would still welcome a US-sponsored safe zone in rebel-held areas if only to prevent it from being established in the Kurdish-held zone run by a group with close links to the Turkish Kurdish rebels who are fighting Turkey. Ankara’s nightmare scenario is a replay of the US-protected zone in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, which laid the foundations for Iraqi Kurdish autonomy and eventual statehood.
But administration officials speaking on condition of strict anonymity speculated that a more likely area for US protection is in the south of the country on the Jordanian border, where a group known as the Southern Front controls a fair chunk of territory. In a Jan. 23 op-ed published in the Fair Observer, analysts Hassan Hassan and Nicholas Heras and former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi noted that the Southern Front, the largest coalition of CIA-vetted Syrian rebel groups, has “quietly become the focus of an effort by Washington’s closest regional partners — Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel — to control and stabilize considerable strategic areas of southwestern Syria.”
The authors observed, “In addition to helping the new administration achieve policy goals such as taking the fight to IS, pushing back against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and protecting allies’ security, the Southern Front is prepared to be the indigenous security forces that protect a safe zone to house Syrians displaced by the war, particularly the large population of Syrian refugees that is destabilizing Jordan.”
The largest population of Syrian refugees — almost 3 million — is in Turkey. A safe zone on Turkey’s borders would allow some at least to return, or so Ankara hopes. Continued US and Russia airstrikes against al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in northwestern Syria can only complicate matters further.