Erdogan’s plan for northeastern Syria fuels uncertainty
In his speech at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted: “We have earned the title of the world’s most generous provider of humanitarian aid and accepted the most displaced people.” He was referring to his country hosting 3.6 million refugees from war-torn Syria and having spent $40 billion on their care.
This care and attention could now come to an end. In the same speech, the president proposed the creation of a “peace corridor” in northeast Syria, east of the Euphrates, which would initially be 480 kilometers long and 30 kilometers deep and accommodate about 2 million Syrian refugees from Turkey. He added that the depth of the “safe zone” could be extended further south to the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor line and take in a further 1 million refugees, including some who are presently in Europe.
The “safe zone” appears to be a quick solution to several of his problems. The expenditure on refugees is a drain on Turkey’s economy, which is experiencing a downturn. Added to this is the increasing hostility directed at the refugees by Turkey’s own nationals, who see them as stealing jobs and a source of law and order problems.
In response to these concerns, Ankara initiated a tough policy: In July, unregistered Syrians were given a deadline of Aug. 20 to depart. But the implementation of this harsh measure was relaxed and more accommodative approaches began to be adopted, with the deadline for deportation being further extended.
Turkey’s Islamic organizations had opposed the tough approach toward fellow Muslims in dire straits. Again, Erdogan wanted to highlight the refugee issue before the governments of the US and EU and seek their backing not just for greater financial support, but for the “safe zone” plan itself.
To pressurize the EU, Erdogan said in early September that, absent Western backing, he would have no choice but to “open the gates” for the refugees to go to Europe. He gave up this option under the 2016 agreement with the EU, which retained the refugees in Turkey in return for the promise of €6 billion ($6.5 billion) of financial support.
For Turkey, the key country to get on board is the US, which has about 2,000 troops embedded with the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces
For Turkey, the key country to get on board is the US, which has about 2,000 troops embedded with the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast of the country — the very space that Erdogan wishes to use to realize his relocation plan.
Erdogan attempted to pressurize the US by getting closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin and, contrary to NATO practice, buying the Russian S-400 missile system, leading to Turkey’s expulsion from the development of the F-35 fighter aircraft. Turkey also moved its troops to the border, facing the towns of Tal Abyad and Kobane.
This has encouraged the US to find a way to address Turkey’s concerns relating to the Syrian Kurds at its border. In August, the two countries set up a joint operations center at the border and, from early September, began joint air patrols. Erdogan viewed this as the first step toward getting US backing for his “safe zone” idea.
At the sixth summit of the Astana peace process in Ankara in mid-September, Turkey also got the backing of Russia and Iran for the “peace corridor” to relocate the refugees and combat terrorism. The Syrian foreign office in Damascus, encouraged by Tehran and Moscow, has also backed Turkey by describing the SDF as “a terrorist militia serving as subcontractors to the US.”
Erdogan has kept alive the prospect of a unilateral military intervention in the region — orders have been issued by the Turkish Ministry of Health canceling the leave of its doctors in preparation for military operations.
But not everything is going Erdogan’s way. US officials were able to ensure that, on the sidelines of the UNGA, he did not have a one-to-one meeting with Trump; they feared that Erdogan would persuade his US counterpart into an ill-advised commitment.
US officials have not disguised their hostility to Turkey’s plans for northeastern Syria. They have affirmed military support for the SDF and the military importance to the US of large parts of the space coveted by Turkey for its resettlement proposal. EU nations, such as the UK, France and Germany, have shown interest in joining the US-sponsored “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria,” suggesting that America is unlikely to vacate the region any time soon.
There are other problems with the Erdogan plan: The space he has defined for the resettlement of Syrian refugees already has about 850,000 inhabitants, 75 percent of whom are Kurds. Thus, the plan cannot be implemented without significant demographic changes. Also, the refugees are not from northeast Syria, but from the west and south, and are hardly likely to be enthusiastic about their relocation. Finally, the area is an arid desert, with limited infrastructure, so is hardly capable of accommodating 2 or 3 million people.
With Erdogan’s hostility to the Kurdish presence and concerns that his brinkmanship could lead to military action, the outlook for the region remains very uncertain.
- Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.