Turkey plans to enact safe zones in northern Syria in the hopes that Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey will be able to return home. According to VOA, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed a 250 km-long and 32 km-deep zone in northeast Syria to protect the Turkish border from the Syrian YPG Kurdish militia, also known as the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit. The safe zones would allow Syrians to return back to their home country, as well as, according to the Big News Network, help to protect Turkey from “terrorists”, in reference to the YPG, who controls the areas in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border.
According to the Big News Network, the YPG had been trained and armed by the U.S. to fight against the ISIS. While the U.S. backs YPG and deems them helpful in the fight against ISIS, Turkey considers the YPG to be affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which they consider to be a terrorist organization.
According to the Big News Network, in the recent months, Turkey had threatened to carry out attacks in northern Syria in order to drive out YPG fighters from the area. To VOA, Erdogan stated that, in just the past year, around 300,000 Syrians returned to two other regions in Syria that had been recaptured from the YPG by Turkish forces. Thus, he believes that by creating this new safe zone, more Syrians would be able to return to Syria.
The Turkish Foreign Minister maintained that Turkey has the capacity to create the safe zones in Syria on its own, although, they could include Russia, the U.S., or other states if they wished to cooperate. Turkish President Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to gain support for the planned safe zones, reported VOA. In addition, following talks between Erdogan and U.S. President Trump about creating said safe zones, Trump announced the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria.
Turkish President Erdogan hopes that the safe zones will undergo implementation in the coming months. Last month, Erdogan shared housing plans for Syrians willing to return to Syria in the potential safe zones. The president stated, “My plan would be to build two-story houses with gardens of 500-square meters so the inhabitants could begin a new life,” adding that a buffer zone “would also block migration completely”, reported VOA.
Furthermore, former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen believes Ankara is looking to the E.U. to fund the construction project. Selcen divulged, “For [the] reconstruction of Syria, it will not be the U.S., because the U.S. say they will not take part in the construction as long as Assad stays.” He then added that, “The E.U. seems to be quite willing to play that role because they fear a new influx of refugees emanating from Syria. And Erdogan saw that clearly when dealing with the E.U.”
Some believe that the proposed projects in Syria may aid in boosting Turkey’s construction industry which has been struggling as of late. Indeed, international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University declared, “There is no doubt Syria has to be rebuilt, and the Turkish contribution is going to be immense.” He went on to add, “We have been doing this in the good old times of 2008, 9, and 10. Turkey was building [in Syria] hotels, streets, train stations, many things. Why not start again? Reconciliation with Syria in economic terms would be perfect for Turkey.”
According to VOA, while Bagci favors this plan, he points out that it is only possible in the case that Turkey reopens diplomatic relations with Damascus, which Erdogan has yet to agree to do until Syrian President Bashar al-Assad steps down. Another issue with the construction plan can be seen in that the willingness of Syrians to leave Turkey and return to war-torn Syria is difficult to sway. Selcan stated, “There are not significant numbers of Syrians returning… The Syrians that are 3 million or so in Turkey. They are here to stay for the foreseeable future.”
Whether or not Erdogan carries out his proposed plan in Syria and enacts the safe zones, it is important that he does what is in the best interest of the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. The safe zones have the potential to be a great solution for the restoration of security in the northern parts of Syria, however, there are risks that arise from sending civilians into a war-torn state with limited protection. Thus, if Erdogan does carry out his proposal, he should ensure that there would be substantial protection in the zones for the safety of the returning Syrians. In addition, the safe zones cannot be seen as a way to force Syrians out of Turkey and back into Syria, as it is crucial that they have the freedom to choose between returning to Syria or remaining in Turkey.
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