Early this month, the United States and Turkey announced they had reached an agreement to set up a joint operations center to “coordinate and manage the establishment of a safe zone” in northeast Syria. This is yet another “zone” planned for Syria after four so-called “de-escalation” zones and a Russian-Turkish agreed “buffer zone” in Idlib were created in the past few years. The new “safe zone” is intended to become a so-called “peace corridor” permitting repatriation of Syrian refugees from Turkey. While there is a significant risk that a new arrangement will further destabilize this highly volatile region and threaten the security of millions of civilians, there is also growing concern that neither Turkey nor the U.S. might fully abide by their humanitarian obligations to ensure the safety and well-being of the persons within the bounds of the “safe zone.”
Contrary to some media reports, the idea to set up the “safe zone” in northeast Syria did not originate from President Trump. It can be traced back to Turkish suggestions voiced as early as November 2011. Though the latest proposed “safe zone” is still light on detail, it seems that that the establishment of the zone is, indeed, going ahead. The speed with which Trump’s administration intends to establish the facilities and the zone itself appears quite remarkable, given its previous lack of appetite for the idea, but key details of what the administration terms a “security mechanism” remain vague.
What is known about the proposed zone? Some reports suggest that it is essentially designed as the People’s Protection Units (YPG)- exclusion zone: to be cleared of Kurdish YPG troops, their heavy weapons, and their military facilities, with joint U.S. and Turkish monitoring. Once cleared of the Kurdish presence, the area would subsequently be populated with some of the 3.8 million Syrian refugees currently hosted by Turkey. The YPG is a key component of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the U.S. strongest local ally in the fight against ISIS. The YPG is currently in control of the area where the “safe zone” is to be established. However, the YPG has been seen by Turkey as the Syrian arm of Turkey’s long-time and current foe the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. Turkey has long bristled at U.S. support for the YPG, particularly along its own border with Syria.
“Safety Zones” and International Humanitarian Law
Does “safe” in the title mean that safety for protected persons will be assured? There is no single legal definition of “safe zones” or “safe corridors.” The former can be described as an area that is protected from attack or, more generally, from the effects of hostilities. The latter refers to a route allowing safe movement out of or through areas of hostilities. However, international humanitarian law (IHL), does provide for several types of protective or demilitarized areas in international armed conflicts.
For example, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, “hospital and safety zones” may be set up at a safe distance from military operations “to protect from the effects of war, wounded, sick and aged persons, children under fifteen, expectant mothers and mothers of children under seven.” “Neutralized zones” may be created in areas of active hostilities to temporarily shelter civilians taking no active part in hostilities and the wounded or sick, whether combatants or civilians, to protect them from attacks. Safety zones are generally established unilaterally and they can be formed either on a party to the conflict’s own territory or in occupied areas. The parties to the conflict may also establish demilitarized zones, in which measures must be taken to stop use of the area for any military purposes – these may sometimes be colloquially described as “buffer zones” that aim to keep adversaries’ forces apart. Ultimately, no matter which of these types of protective “zone” is at issue, any such zones must provide for the basic welfare and health of civilians and the sick and wounded located there, as well as protection from military operations to civilians within its bounds, as safe refuge is an underlying reason for creation of such zones.
The uncertainty around the proposed zone makes its legal categorization as a type of humanitarian zone premature. It may be established as a selectively demilitarized zone with a secondary humanitarian objective, which would promise a measure of safety to civilians within the zone. It may potentially be considered as a longer-term safety zone controlled by the United States and Turkey, in which case the United States and Turkey would be Occupying Powers with all of the relevant obligations that apply in occupied areas. In practice though, without an agreement of other parties to the conflict and given the diversity of their political interests, the area may potentially become a renewed battlefield with catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
Political and Security Interests
The agreement comes at a time when relations between Turkey and the United States appear strained. The Trump administration is looking into implementing sanctions after Turkey acquired the Russian S-400 missile defence system, in addition to blocking Turkish participation in the F-35 weapons program. At the same time, the U.S. is beginning the progressive withdrawal of its forces from Syria, as announced last December. This move appears to be justified by the declared defeat of ISIS. This may also suggest that the level of U.S. support to the YPG, its most effective fighters on the ground against ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria, is being reconsidered. What’s more, a recent Turkish military build up on the Syrian border threatening a third cross-border intervention apparently increased the United States’ concerns over U.S. personnel getting caught in the fighting should such operation take place.
The uncertainty around the proposed zone makes its legal categorization as a type of humanitarian zone premature. … In practice though, without an agreement of other parties to the conflict and given the diversity of their political interests, the area may potentially become a renewed battlefield with catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
As noted above, Turkey has for years been uncomfortable with U.S. support for the YPG. Nevertheless, by creating a YPG-exclusion zone under its control Turkey aims to eradicate any opportunities for a PKK presence in this part of Syria. Turkey has proven with two previous operations, “Euphrates Shield’” in 2016 and “Olive Branch’” in 2018, that it is fully capable of launching offensives in Syria against the YPG and does not need a buffer zone to deter threats along its border. However, taking U.S. support away from the YPG in favor of Turkey would strengthen Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Russia and Syria especially when it struggles to keep the Idlib ceasefire under the Sochi agreement from breaking.
The YPG’s key concern revolves around the loss of territory that the establishment of a safe zone under Turkey’s lead will ultimately bring. With or without the U.S., the YPG is set to defend the territory under its control. This covers a large swath of Syrian territory, and some major oil and natural gas fields. Accordingly, the YPG would need to redeploy its forces to northeast Syria from other areas in Syria and Iraq that it recently liberated from ISIS. This would leave a vacuum that the resurgent remnants of ISIS and Al Qaida could easily fill. This is a considerable risk that the U.S. cannot ignore, as reports of ISIS regaining strength increase. With the U.S. presence in Syria rapidly shrinking, co-managing a safety zone is bound to divert some of its remaining resources from focusing on fighting ISIS and it will come at a significant cost.
Syria made clear that it will regard any safety zone as a violation of its sovereign territory. As a practical matter, however, the Syrian government cannot control all of its territory. Militarily and politically, it depends significantly on support from Russia. Would Russia accept what might, in effect, turn into a long-term Turkish presence on Syrian territory? Does it accept the risk of an outbreak of hostilities between the YPG and Turkey possibly drawing in the U.S.? Russia does not mind seeing the U.S. stuck in a politically uncomfortable situation, requiring it to take a position on whether to side with Turkey — a NATO ally — or continue to support the YPG against ISIS. Pushing the YPG from the northeast is likely to result in the group’s regrouping in other parts of Syria, and that is also an outcome Russia and Syria want to avoid.
What Comes Next?
Syria’s recent condemnation of the U.S.-Turkey plan blames the YPG and Syrian Kurds for the idea of the proposed “safe zone.” The Syrian government is likely, therefore, to exploit the threat of an unwanted Turkish presence on its territory – under the guise of a “safe zone” – to expedite an assault on Idlib province, aiming to subsequently retake Syria’s northeast to prevent any partitioning of its territory and push the YPG outside of its borders. Russia may then propose its own version of a “peacekeeping zone” that would prevent U.S. or Turkish involvement, and any chance for the Syrian Kurds to retain what they have termed “Rojava,” an autonomous Kurdish region within Syrian borders. One way or another, an anticipated large-scale military offensive against Idlib would inevitably bring further suffering to some 3 million Syrians, and possibly in the future to millions located in or repatriated to north-east of Syria.
Finally, Syrians – especially Syrian Kurds – both inside and outside Syria share well-founded fears that Turkey or its proxies, left to their own devices, will permit or encourage potential human rights abuses of the Syrian Kurdish minority seen in Afrin in 2018. The U.S. State Department, in its latest annual human rights report, relying on the UN Commission of Inquiry and several NGO reports, highlighted a pattern of alleged killings, kidnappings, and the mass displacement of thousands of Syrian Kurds during and after the Turkish intervention in Afrin. The report indicated that some Syrian Arab families and Turkmen affiliated with Turkish forces have subsequently resettled in the Afrin area, that street names have been changed to Arabic and Turkish, Kurdish statues and symbols were destroyed or removed, cemeteries were vandalised, and thousands of Syrian Kurdish properties looted. It remains unclear whether Turkish forces actively participated in or encouraged such acts, though it seems plausible that at the very least they may not have tried to stop them.
The United States and Turkey may attempt to argue against their status as Occupying Powers and refuse to govern the controlled area accordingly, exemplified by the U.S. stand on al-Tanf. Still, they cannot relinquish their duties to assure safety and humanitarian support to the protected persons within the “safe zone,” as required by the norms governing any type of humanitarian zones, including “safe” or demilitarized zones.
None of this instills any confidence in Syrian Kurds, other ethnic Syrian groups (Christian, Yazidi) and the international community, who fear yet another attempt at the demographic re-engineering of Syrian society and the further eradication of ethnic Syrian Kurds. Any repatriations of Syrians to this area must be voluntary and offer a safe, habitable environment for resettlement. Yet, the chances are that likely military confrontations and uncertain effective governance of the zone will have dire effects on masses of Syrians. One does not need to recall the tragic outcomes of Bosnian “safe areas” in the 1990s to understand why this is so – even the past experiences with various types of “zones” created in Syria are sufficient to raise serious doubt as to whether such a zone will provide safety for anyone.
Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images