In the past week, Turkey has gone from an unhappy observer in the Syrian civil war to a full-blown combatant. Following two attacks by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), the country has begun a bombing campaign targeting both the Islamist militants in Syria and Kurdish separatists in Iraq.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also allowed the United States to use the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey in its bombing campaign against ISIS.
As part of that deal, the Turks have been saying, the United States threw its weight behind the creation of a “safe zone” stretching 68 miles across the Turkish-Syrian border and 40 miles into Syria, reaching the outskirts of Syria’s second city Aleppo.
The plan is for the zone to be cleared of the so-called Islamic State by other Syrian rebels and protected by Turkish and US air power, allowing many of the 1.8 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return home.
But there are a number of reasons why either the zone won’t be created, or, even if it is, few refugees are likely to return.
1. The US hasn’t actually agreed to a ‘safe zone’
The deal was trumpeted by Erdogan, while the New York Times and the Washington Post quoted senior American officials saying an agreement had indeed been struck. Since then, however, US President Barack Obama’s administration has been rowing back and diluting its version of the deal. Officials have been briefing that the United States has no intention of supporting “a safe zone, a no-fly zone, an air-exclusionary zone, a humanitarian buffer zone or any other protected zone of any kind.”
“US policy does not appear to have changed. Turkey is using the phrase safe zone, American officials have not used that,” Noah Bonsey, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said. “The American position has been and remains: the US is not prepared to take action to halt [the Syrian government's aerial] attacks. As long as that is the case, it would be difficult to describe it as a safe zone.”
Ege Seckin, Turkey analyst at the IHS think tank, said this is largely because the United States is deeply uncomfortable about who would control the territory if ISIS were expelled.
“The only viable fighting powers on the ground are the al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra and [another Islamist group] Jeish al-Islam. The Free Syrian Army is not capable,” he said. “So what we are likely to see is al-Qaeda groups moving into the buffer zone area with Turkish air support.” Because of this possibility, he said, the United States is wary of giving its full support to the plan.
Likewise, there has been no UN Security Council resolution backing the plan. Turkey tried and failed to get the UNSC to back the idea in 2012. The international community, therefore, has no obligation to help implement it.
2. Turkey has other priorities
While there is little doubt that the Turkish government would like ISIS to disappear, Seckin said its absolute priority is the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the separatist group it has been fighting for decades.
It is telling that in the first days of Turkey’s bombing campaign this past week, just three of the 51 targets its warplanes struck were ISIS, the other 48 were PKK.
Bonsey said the announcement of the “safe zone” deal was part of wider Turkish plans to put pressure on the United States. “My impression of Turkish policy is they want to reach a point where they and the US have a joint approach to dealing with Syria, to dealing with ISIS, the [Kurds] and what the Turks view as the root of the issue – the war between the forces of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition.”
Seckin said there was, however, a danger of “mission creep” – that Turkey would need to become ever more involved in order to enforce such a zone – including potentially using ground forces.
“Once they open the Pandora’s box of targeting the Islamic State, they are locked in.”
3. ISIS won’t leave quietly
The area in question is now under the control of ISIS, and includes the last border post with Turkey under the Islamists’ control. They are likely to be desperate to defend it.
Even if ISIS is forced out, there is little chance it will vacate the area without leaving it as uninhabitable as possible.
In the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobani, for example, the retreating militants laid mines and booby traps wherever they could – going as far as to stuff explosives inside dead bodies. Up to 70 percent of the city is now uninhabitable.
Therefore, before any refugees would be able to return to a “safe zone,” a major demining operation would probably be necessary. This would require the commitment of specialist NGOs, including large teams with significant expertise.
In Kobani, this process was just beginning – some six months after the militants were forced out – when ISIS launched a surprise operation, killing dozens. Aid agencies are now wary of committing to any future moves.
One international NGO that IRIN spoke to said it could also have ethical issues working in a “safe zone,” especially if Turkey was seen to have forced Syrians out of its territory.
4. Refugees won’t want to go back
Only a fraction of the Syrians registered in Turkey live in refugee camps, the vast majority in cities. Metin Çorabatir, president of the Ankara-based Research Centre on Asylum and Migration, said there was little evidence that people would want to return to areas they don’t know and that could remain unstable.
Many fled from both the Assad regime and the Islamist groups. Their willingness to live again under the potential rule of either is doubtful at best.
Çorabatir pointed out that the Turkish government also has limited information on the whereabouts of the vast majority of the Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
“There are (almost) two million refugees. Only 200,000 live in camps. It should be a voluntary process."
“Turkey should ask people if they want to go or not,” he said, adding that it would be against international law if any refugees were forced to return.