Safe zone is no excuse for Turkish control of Syrian land

The creation of this border area must not leave Turks in charge and Kurds unprotected

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish YPG militiamen take part in a military parade in celebration of victory over Islamic state, in Qamishli, Syria, March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo
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Days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the launch of an offensive in north-eastern Syria, tensions have been defused overnight with the US and Turkey having agreed to establish a joint operations centre to co-ordinate a safe zone at the Syrian-Turkish border. This controversial move could allow Turkey to effectively control Syrian lands. The Syrian government has rejected the initiative, describing it as a violation of its sovereignty.

But Turkish authorities consider the region, run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, to be a haven for terrorist groups. They have accused the YPG, which dominates the US-backed SDF, of having ties with the Turkish-based PKK — deemed a terrorist organisation by Ankara and Washington. Wars in Syria and Iraq have given Kurdish militant groups, who fought against ISIS and other extremists, the opportunity to establish themselves as partners of western powers, giving them the licence to govern large areas. This has raised the alarm in Ankara, given that Kurdish separatists have led an insurgency against the government for decades.

To assuage Turkey's security concerns, Washington has promised to help create a safe zone along the Syrian border and clear it of Kurdish militia but that has yet to materialise and the two countries are still settling on the most important details of the arrangement. Turkey has insisted on establishing a 32-kilometre deep zone while the US reportedly wants to limit it to 12km. Turkey also wishes to supervise the area alone. This would give Turkey carte blanche to punish Kurdish communities.

The haggling over a sliver of Syrian land has laid bare Turkey’s true motivations. Most of Syria is once again ruled by Bashar Al Assad’s regime and rebel-held regions are at the mercy of extremist groups such as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, except for parts run by moderate rebels under Turkish supervision. Yet Ankara seems unconcerned about the plight of the Syrians, who it had instrumentalised for its political goals and mostly left at the mercy of Assad and HTS. Instead, Mr Erdogan plans to take advantage of a weakened Syria to extend Turkey’s reach beyond its borders in an attempt to deflect attention from his failings at home. And the US’s eagerness to withdraw its troops could hasten the creation of a safe zone which, if Washington gives in to Ankara’s demands, will be safe in name only to the Kurds - and amount to nothing less than a land grab.