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Has Erdogan revealed Ankara’s occupational goals?

Syrian Kurds and Armenians fear a Turkish-run safe zone east of the Euphrates, particularly since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to establish a military safe zone east of the Euphrates and labels the Kurdish People's Protection Units as terrorists.

QAMISHLI, Syria — As part of the US-Turkish understandings on a security mechanism east of the Euphrates to address the so-called Turkish security concerns, the United States and Turkey conducted Sept. 12 their fourth joint overflight over northeastern Syria. This mechanism includes joint land and aerial patrols in the so-called safe zone between the towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain. 

This came one day after the deputy commander of the US European Command, Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, and the deputy commander of the US Central Command, Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Bergeson, traveled Sept. 11 to the US-Turkey joint operations center in Akcakale, in the Turkish province of Sanliurfa, as part of the operations for the safe zone on the Syrian-Turkish border, according to a Turkish Defense Ministry statement reported on by the pro-government Anatolia news agency.

The visit came three days after the first US-Turkish joint ground patrol was conducted Sept. 8 in the border areas between the towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain, as part of the second phase of the agreement for a safe zone in northeastern Syria.

On Sept. 8, Reuters quoted a witness as saying that the Turkish military vehicles entered Syria near Tell Abyad to conduct joint patrols with the US army in a safe zone. It noted that vehicles with Turkish flags joined those in Syria with US flags some 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Turkish-Syrian border, near Tell Abyad.

At the inauguration ceremony of a number of development projects in the Turkish province of Malatya, and a few hours after conducting the first joint patrol in the safe zone, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened Sept. 9 that Turkey will embark on its own plan in late September if the buffer zone in the northern part of the country is not initiated with the Turkish soldiers.

Ankara aspires for a buffer zone to be at least 30 kilometers (19 miles) wide along its border, and to be placed under its full control. This is added to the withdrawal of the Kurdish People's Protection Units, which Ankara labels as a terrorist organization, from said buffer zone. While Ankara wants the buffer zone to be set up as far as 32 kilometers (20 miles) from its border, the United States speaks of a distance of 5-14 kilometers (3-8.5 miles).

Addressing a Kurdish tribal gathering in the city of Direk (al-Malikiyah) Sept. 12, Aldar Khalil, a member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM), accused Turkey of not honoring its commitments in the agreement for the safe zone. The Kurdish leader said that Ankara is escaping the agreement and subsequently uncovering its objective of occupying in the region.

Fearing Erdogan’s threats, an Armenian-Syrian hailing from the countryside of Ras al-Ain in the northeast of Syria, fled to Qamishli a few months ago, where she spoke to Al-Monitor Sept. 12. She said on condition of anonymity that she is terrified that she and her family, as well as hundreds of other Armenians, suffer the same fate as her ancestors in 1915-1916, when thousands of Armenians, including her family from her dad’s side, were killed in the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks against them. 

She added, “We — the Armenians — fear for our lives and of suffering the same fate as our ancestors. Additional massacres will be committed against us and against other religious communities in case Ankara takes control over the safe zone. Similarly to the killings that were committed against the Yazidis and Christians, including the Armenians, in Afrin more than year ago.” 

On July 26, Erdogan had threatened of establishing a military safe zone east of the Euphrates River and of burying the Kurds.

After the Ankara-backed Syrian opposition factions kidnapped and killed his son, Manan Mustafa, a Kurdish man in his 50s, fled Afrin into Kobani along with his family a year ago and has settled there. Speaking to Al-Monitor while he was visiting his sister in Qamishli Sept. 12, he said, “The Syrian opposition factions have been pursuing their violations against civilians in Afrin and its countryside since they took control over them, to exterminate those who remained there. A few days ago, they kidnapped and tortured to death a young guy, and killed an old couple and stole their money. They are nothing like the rebels they claim to be. They are criminals.”

He added, “if Turkey takes controls over the safe zone, its troops will commit massacres against us, the Kurds. They will displace us to have Arab Syrians from other cities resettle in ours. They seek to bring about a demographic change to our areas, similarly to what they have done in Afrin. They displaced its people and resettled the displaced from Ghouta there, and the armed opposition factions committed violations, such as the arrests, killings, kidnappings and torture against the inhabitants of Afrin. We fear that the same scenario of Afrin is replicated in case Turkey takes control over the safe zone.”

Human Right Watch accused June 14 the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition armed factions of seizing, destroying and looting the Kurds’ properties in Afrin, in northern Syria, and resettling their families in the houses of the Kurds.

The New York Times wrote Sept. 10 about Turkey’s efforts to establish a safe zone in northern Syria and described that it consists of Erdogan’s radical plan to end the Kurds’ presence in Syria through the Syrian refugees who reside in Turkey. It noted that Erdogan plans to establish a safe zone in order to get rid of the Kurds, under the pretext that they pose a threat to his country’s national security. It continued that Erdogan is ready to build cities in the safe zone for the resettlement of nearly 1 million of Turkey’s Syrian refugees. Erdogan said that in case the United States refrained from implementing the deal on the safe zone and in case the European Union did not provide Turkey with financial aid to help the refugees, his country will open the gates to Europe to them.

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