For months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unswervingly sought to create a so-called safe zone in northern Syria, one that would effectively allow his country to have direct control over sovereign territory. These pages have long warned against the creation of a Turkish-run buffer zone as the move adds to the incredible instability of Syria and further complicates any possible peaceful solution for the country.
But this could now be a stark reality after US President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that American troops will withdraw from northern Syria, leaving the way clear for Turkey to launch a long-planned operation against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by Kurds, whom Ankara regards as terrorists affiliated with the banned Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK). Mr Erdogan has warned such an offensive is now “imminent”. So far the US, which still has some military presence in Syria, has managed to delay Turkey’s expansionist intentions by demanding that the buffer zone be limited to 12 kilometres instead of the 30km strip of land that Mr Erdogan seeks. During his speech at the UN General Assembly earlier last month, Mr Erdogan even suggested extending the safe zone as far as Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, nearly 200km deep into Syrian territory. If he is allowed to proceed with his imperialistic aspirations, any hope of the restoration of the rights and dignity of Syrian citizens in the future will be lost for good.
The fact that the US is prepared to stand idle as this scenario unfolds is an abdication of responsibility and effectively means the Americans will abandon a critical ally on the ground – one that helped defeat ISIS – to the mercy of the Turkish armed forces. Ankara expects SDF fighters to vacate the safe zone to make way for up to 3 million Syrian refugees it plans to relocate there.
Such a move will significantly alter the region’s mostly Kurdish demographics and will help Turkey to clamp down on Kurdish dissidents while absolving itself of its responsibility towards Syrian refugees, whom it plans to dispatch back to their war-torn country.
The offensive aims to weaken Kurdish forces on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border. Without the support of the US, pushed to the north by Turkey’s safe zone and squeezed in the south by regime forces that have regained control of most of Syria, the SDF are now running out of options.
What is at stake goes beyond the Kurds, however. The SDF currently holds thousands of former ISIS fighters and their families, including Al Hol camp, home to 70,000 people, one third of whom are thought to be ISIS sympathisers. There are reports that ISIS supporters are effectively running parts of the camp as the SDF does not have the means to supervise it efficiently and is struggling to manage its tens of thousands of prisoners, including hundreds of foreign fighters from countries that refuse to take them back.
The White House has stated that as the US withdraws its troops from the north of Syria, these ISIS fighters will become Turkey’s burden to bear. Mr Trump is fulfilling his pledge to bring US troops back home as he campaigns for re-election in 2020, however this can prove to be a disastrous absolution of duty. Neither Washington nor Ankara have clarified how a safe handover of prisoners held by the SDF will take place, nor what protections will be in place for the rebel group, particularly as Ankara has its sights set on driving the SDF out of any territory it holds. Indeed, the chaos and violence that will likely ensue could provide the perfect opportunity for ISIS members to escape and once again wreak havoc in the region.
This would be a tragic scenario that will neither benefit Syria nor help Syrians return home. The rest of the world cannot stand idle and allow this to happen.