Turkey's 'safe zone' in northern Syria is unlikely to be safe for anyone

Facing racism in their host country and continued violence at home, Syrian refugees are caught between a rock and a hard place

Northern Syria has seen persistent violence since the country's civil war began. AFP
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“Stand with Laila” and “Fight racism” are two popular hashtags among Syrians and Turks from the past week, in support of a 70-year-old Syrian refugee who was hit by a Turkish man in what has been described as a racist attack.

Turkey has hosted around 3 million Syrian refugees for nearly a decade, who live and work in the country. In recent years, there has been a rising sense of frustration and anger among many Turks demanding the return of these refugees to Syria. This is also one of the main issues in opposition parties’ election campaigns.

The 39-year-old who attacked the elderly woman was arrested by police. But many fear that this is becoming a chronic issue in Turkish society. This incident also coincided with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement of a new offensive in northern Syria.

Last week, Mr Erdogan said the incursion is being prepared for two reasons: first, to fight the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces, which Ankara considers a terrorist group, and second, to establish a 30km safe zone on Turkey’s southern border.

Turkey has launched four military operations in northern Syria since 2016, all against militant groups that Ankara says are linked to the PKK, a Turkey-based separatist militant group designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and EU.

In 2019, there was a ceasefire and an agreement with Russia, another participant in Syria’s complex war, that would help push the Kurds away from Turkish borders. The two countries agreed that Russian military police and Syrian border guards would patrol the border areas to control the Kurdish presence there.

Although the US warned against any escalation on the border that could undermine regional security, Turkey made it clear it is adamant to protect its own national security.

But the timing of this most recent announcement also coincides with important development brought about by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Both Finland and Sweden requested to join Nato, as the war on Ukraine is just on their doorstep.

Turkey, a Nato member, opposed the request and threatened to veto this. It claims that both Nordic countries support and house Kurdish groups with terrorist links. Turkish officials made it clear that unless there is substantial action taken against PKK-aligned groups and individuals in both Finland and Sweden, it will maintain its opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership.

It is debatable whether it is yet safe to force Syrians who are in Turkey to go back to Syria, where there is no one party in control

One could argue that Mr Erdogan is seizing the opportunity to put pressure on Europe to get its help in cracking down on Kurdish dissidents, but it also suits Turkey well enough to launch its Syrian offensive now that the West and Russia are busy with Ukraine. Turkish-supported Syrian armed groups have said they are ready to help Ankara.

The attack is expected to target two cities, in particular: Tal Rifat and Manbij, to the west of the Euphrates River. Kurdish forces say this offensive will undermine their battle against ISIS militants that they are fighting in those areas.

Although the targeted areas were originally home to a majority-Arab population, they are now under control of the YPG. Syrian opposition groups have accused Kurdish parties of discrimination against Arabs, corruption and indiscriminate military attacks on the Arab population, along with other human rights violations.

On the other hand, under the rule of both the late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad and now his son Bashar Al Assad, Kurds have been denied basic rights in Syria. Although the Kurds make up between around 7 per cent of the Syrian population, they are seeking to establish a self-controlled area in northern Syria similar to the one they already have in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. With support from the US and later from Russia, they are now in de-facto control of a large swathe of Syrian territories, including oil rich areas.

The complexity and ethnic dimension to the conflict in this region raises the question of whether Turkey’s aim to expand what it describes as “safe zone” that could potentially be used to resettle Syrian refugees is viable.

The offensive itself could well create a new wave of refugees and spur further displacement. This happened before, when at least 100,000 Syrians were displaced to other parts of the country from Afrin during a previous Turkish offensive.

Furthermore, civilians in northern Syria already face a difficult enough situation, in terms of security and the economy, so it is debatable whether it is yet safe to force Syrians who are in Turkey to go back to Syria, where there is no one party in control and government forces continue to target by shelling.

The anger among Turks towards Syrian presence in Turkey is, in many ways, understandable, given their country’s own economic crisis and the fact that what was initially sold to them as a humanitarian effort to house a temporary population has turned into long-term demographic change. But pushing civilians back into the unknown and into unsafe areas would only make Syrians’ humanitarian situation worse.

Many Syrians in Turkey are wary of the wave of anger against them and the spectre of more racism to come. But they are alsofearful of being forced back into more danger. The events of the past week will only reinforce a popular perception within their community that they are merely another card being used in regional and geopolitical brinkmanship, with little concern for their welfare.

Published: June 03, 2022, 5:00 AM