Today, Turkey’s military has launched an offensive in North East Syria to secure the Turkish border by removing Kurdish-led forces. This is part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to implement a ‘safe zone’ along the Turkish-Syrian border in an effort to provide housing for the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. The plans dubbed “Operation Peace Spring” aims to “eliminate a terrorist corridor” along the border and bring “peace and tranquility” to the region. The plans would see a 32-kilometre-deep, 480-kilometre-long corridor inside Syria along the border. These actions come after the US on Sunday announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Syrian border clearing the way for the Turkish attacks.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared in Congress that the “precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad Regime”.
Jonathon Hoffman released a statement by the Pentagon stating that “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey – as did the President – that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria”.
Additionally, the Kurdish-led alliance says it will defend its territory and that the U.S. is “leaving the area to turn into a war zone” thereby risking the re-emergence of Islamic State.
Turkey’s plan for a ‘safe zone’ is yet to be fully revealed. However, history would demonstrate that the term ‘safe zone’ evokes the images of vulnerability and death rather than “peace and tranquility”. Therefore, Turkey’s use of the word ‘safe zone’ has echoes of Iraq in 1991, Srebrenica during 1993, Rwanda in 1995 and Sri Lanka in 2009. The International Committee of the Red Cross has stated that a successful safe zone requires a consensus from all actors who are party to the conflict and a sufficient military deterrent. For Turkey, this would mean seeking recognition of the zone from every force in the Syrian conflict – an array of state and non-state actors ranging from the Assad regime to the Kurdish-led militia. This complex task is part of why safe zones were never implemented in Syria in the past, for it has been demonstrated on various occasions that actors such as the Assad regime find the use of force on civilian communities to be acceptable, for example with multiple chemical attacks. Consequently, if Turkey fails to administer these principles it is promising to contribute yet another unsafe ‘safe zone’ to the annals of history. Additionally, the ICRC has deemed foreign military intervention to establish a ‘safe zone’ would be regulated by international legal governing of the use of force. Therefore, Erdogan is acting in a highly provocative and antagonistic manner in order to provide stability to the area.
This is exacerbated by the promise of a U.S. withdrawal. Analysts, correspondents and officials alike have stated that such actions could lead to a power vacuum which holds the potential to open a new pandora’s box of conflict. A weakened Kurdish force and the lack of U.S. support on the ground could provide actors such as the Islamic State (I.S.) the opening they require to gain traction in the area. Despite the U.S. statements that I.S. has been destroyed, it is ultimately difficult and rare that a terrorist organization is truly destroyed. Rather, the caliphate is destroyed, but the threat of I.S. and its fighters still remains.
Consequently, it appears that Turkey’s actions to secure its borders are instead provoking an unstable situation. Trump, despite stating that he would “destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” if Turkey was to proceed with actions that the US President considered to be “off-limits”, has essentially provided President Erdogan with the green flag to create conflict and heighten tensions, through the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The U.S. withdrawal has created the perfect scenario for President Erdogan and his troops to manipulate. Previously, the U.S. and Kurdish militia – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – were close allies in the fight to end the I.S. caliphate. However, without the U.S., Kurdish forces will be severely weakened, and Turkey will not be lenient with them. For Turkey, the Kurds have historically been viewed as a terrorist organization, as the minority group has fought for their autonomy within Turkey for three decades. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Kurd fighters have warned of ethnic cleansing within the areas along the border.
Syria has endured years of conflict and bloodshed and its civilians are the ones who have faced the brunt of it. President Erdogan’s actions are an intrusion into sovereign borders and hold the promise of further conflict in an already highly unstable region. It is time for nations who have said “never again” in the face of human rights atrocities to take a stronger stance and condemn the actions of countries such as Turkey. Nations should be looking for more peaceful remedies to the conflict and this includes opening a dialogue with those who have been marginalized and who have felt the effects of war.