Turkey's insistence on Syria safe zone raises fears for refugees

Ankara seen as trying to rid itself of the burden of millions of refugees

A Turkish military vehicle part of a US military convoy takes part in joint patrol in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha on the outskirts of Tal Abyad town along the border with Turkey, on September 24, 2019. The United States and Turkey began joint patrols in northeastern Syria aimed at easing tensions between Ankara and US-backed Kurdish forces. / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

There are growing concerns about Turkey's proposal to send millions of Syrian refugees to a supposed “safe zone” across the border in north-eastern Syria, outlined by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the UN General Assembly last week.

“If this safe zone can be declared, we can resettle confidently somewhere between one to two million refugees,” the Turkish president told the UN on September 24. “Whether with the US or the coalition forces, Russia and Iran, we can walk shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand so refugees can resettle, saving them from tent camps and container camps.”

Mr Erdogan said previously that if a safe zone was not in place by the end of September, then Turkey would take action – including a possible military operation against Kurdish groups on the other side of the border.

The proposed zone stretches nearly 500 kilometres from the eastern banks of the Euphrates River near Jarablus to the junction of Syria’s borders with Turkey and northern Iraq in the far north-east.

The area has been under the control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-majority force led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF was the main US-allied force fighting ISIS in Syria, and declared victory over the extremist group earlier this year.

However, Turkey considers the YPG to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkey-based Kurdish insurgent group designated as a terrorist organisation by both the US and Turkey.

The US and Turkey reached a limited agreement on a safe zone on August 7, but without stipulating how far into Syria it should extend. The US has sought to keep Turkey at the negotiating table while conducting joint border patrols with Turkish forces in some areas of the safe zone. The SDF has also pulled back 14 kilometres from the frontier.

"We believe continued US-Turkey dialogue and co-ordinated action is the only way to secure the border area in a sustainable manner … and limit any unco-ordinated military operations that would undermine this shared interest," Col Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIS, told The National.

Ibrahim Muslem, a journalist and analyst in Tel Abyad, a city that sits barely one kilometre from the Syrian-Turkish border in the middle of the proposed safe zone, said the SDF “welcomes this agreement, because it guarantees the region’s protection from the offensive that Turkey was threatening.”

According to Muslem, YPG fighters in Tel Abyad had withdrawn 14km from the border as an SDF-affiliated military council took their place. That appears to have been acceptable to Turkish forces located across the border.

Even so, Turkey is demanding that the safe zone extend 30km from the border, a proposal unlikely to sit well with the SDF. An SDF-affiliated delegation to Washington recently warned of a possible repeat of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, which drove the YPG from the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates, and replaced it with Turkey-friendly Islamist rebel groups that stand accused of abuses against civilians.

In parallel with Turkey’s push for the safe zone, Mr Erdogan has repeatedly proposed the “return” of large numbers of Syrian refugees into areas of northern Syria. Last week, Turkey unveiled plans for facilities such as housing, hospitals and schools to cater for the million or so Syrians that officials are proposing to return.

Turkey’s plans are being viewed with alarm by rights groups who, along with refugee law experts, have tended to agree that safe zones are rarely truly safe, and often introduced with ulterior motives.

After the First Gulf War, the US-led coalition and Turkey imposed a safe zone in northern Iraq that ultimately prevented hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds, fleeing Saddam Husein’s forces, from entering Turkey. About 1,500 people died in the cold of the mountainous border region as Turkey repeatedly refused calls from UN refugee agency to let in the refugees.

That safe zone also contributed to the rise of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where the PKK set up bases. President Erdogan said earlier this year that he was looking for a safe zone in north-eastern Syria “against terrorists”, not an “arrangement similar to [what happened] in northern Iraq”.

Bill Frelick, director of the Human Rights Watch refugee rights programme, said Turkey’s goals for the latest safe zone proposal were “obvious”: to limit Kurdish ambitions across the border, and also create a space to return some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees on its soil.

"With Turkey hosting the largest number of refugees of any country in the world," the safe zone gives Turkey the opportunity "to contain the flow of additional refugees coming into Turkey from Syria…and have an area [used for] dumping refugees that are currently in Turkey," Mr Frelick told The National.

Some observers also suggest that the safe zone could allow Turkey to relieve pressure from a pro-government offensive attempting to retake swathes of territory in neighbouring Idlib province. Idlib is already home to more than a million Syrians internally displaced from cross the country, and Turkey wants to avoid another major influx of refugees from the embattled rebel-held pocket.

Turkey may seek to build on a wave of deportations that began earlier this summer with a crackdown on unregistered Syrians and informal labourers in Istanbul. City authorities framed it as a campaign against “illegal immigration”.

More than 1,000 Syrian refugees were deported to Syria in the following weeks, in violation of Turkish and international law, according to rights groups and accounts given to The National by deported refugees.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu denied that Turkey was deporting Syrians, saying that refugees “who voluntarily want to go back” were given help to return to “safe areas”.

Mr Frelick said the deportations set a dangerous precedent.

“The number of refugees actually deported is relatively small, but this threat of deportations will be so high that it will coerce many more thousands of Syrian refugees to agree to be returned to what purports to be a safe area,” he said.

“You combine the promise of safety in Syria with coercive measures—preventing people from getting work authorisation, or not being able to re-register for temporary protection or educate their children—and then watching other Syrians actually being deported.

“That [dynamic] will leverage far more returns,” Frelick said.

Despite the promise of a safe zone, few Syrians in Turkey are thinking about heading back across the border.

Tareq, a refugee living in Turkey for several years who asked that his real name not be used, said the recent deportations and dwindling hospitality from Turkish communities had left many Syrians increasingly concerned.

“It’s clear now that the Turkish authorities are introducing procedures that make it harder for Syrians to live in Turkey.”