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Turkey’s ‘safe zone’: Another chapter in Syria’s disintegration

Turkey’s latest foray into the Syrian quandary has less to do with resolving the conflict and more with micromanaging

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

In his interview with Jonathan Tepperman of Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared that “as a country, as Syria, we would never allow any country to influence our sovereignty.” Assad’s words ring hollow as 10 countries with the anti-ISIS coalition bomb Syria on a daily basis, while Israel’s routine strikes against the regime or Hezbollah continue, and now Turkey is carving out a “safe zone” on the northern border.

Turkey’s safe zone in Syria stands as an attempt to reverse the backlash from the war, offering the coalition a chance at a more vigorous battle against ISIS

Joyce Karam

Turkey’s latest foray into the Syrian quandary has less to do with resolving the conflict and more with micromanaging and containing the backlash from Syria’s disintegration. As Ankara and Washington work out the logistics and the defense framework for the 100 km zone in Syria, its timing and scope are more tied to Turkish and U.S. interests rather than upending the situation inside Syria. It comes at a time when the threat of ISIS is increasing inside in Turkey’s border areas, and more unease with a strengthened Kurdish autonomous movement in Northern Syria and Iraq.

Incirlik in return for PKK?

Turkey’s “safe zone” or what U.S. officials are calling an “ISIL-free zone” (using another acronym for ISIS) to avoid legal ramifications, does not promise to be a game changer given its small size and strict focus on ISIS . According to the Washington Post, the Turkish-U.S. agreement “includes a plan to drive the Islamic State out of a 68-mile-long (109 Km) area west of the Euphrates River and reaching into the province of Aleppo” in the hopes that the Syrian opposition would eventually take control of the territory.

The size of the area at 109 km is much smaller than Israel’s buffer zone in South Lebanon from 1985-2000 (328 square miles) and constrains its mission in terms of accommodating or resettling more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

For the U.S. and Turkey, the safe zone agreement offers a trade off by which Washington gains access to Turkish airbases in the fight against ISIS, while Ankara receives support in its battle against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and tests a new concept for the rebels in Syria. Access to Incirlik air base for the coalition cuts tremendously the flight and refueling time to target ISIS’ strongholds in Raqqa, Syria (500 km) and Mosul, Iraq (900 km). This is a much closer distance than the airbases in Kuwait or Qatar that the coalition has been using over the last year. In return, Turkey has secured few demands in the process. It intensified its attacks against its archenemy the PKK in Iraq, with public support from Washington and more importantly its safe zone will block the Kurdish area in Syria (Rojava) from connecting contiguously in the north.

As far as the Syrian calculus plays out, both Turkey and the U.S. are hoping that the safe zone could provide a testing ground for the Train and Equip program and the rebels’ ability to self-govern without being hindered by their own infighting and Assad’s barrel bombs. These hopes, however, are far from being tangible, and face unanswered questions as to which rebel groups would control the area, and what the rules of engagement are vis-a-vis Assad.

Disintegration continues

For the U.S. and Turkey to be parsing out an area of Syria without prior consultations with Damascus shows the degree of disintegration and rupture that the country has encountered in the last four years.

Today, Turkey is the 12th country that will be dropping bombs inside Syrian territory. This number pales when compared to the almost hundred militias on both the regime and the rebels’ side operating in the country. Syria is transpiring into a mix of Afghanistan and Somalia, whereby foreign fighters from as far as Australia and as close as Lebanon and Iraq are flooding the country to fight with ISIS, or Hezbollah or Nusra or other groups vying for territorial control.

Some observers who have gone into Syria in the last two years, speak of a newly ingrained militia and war culture in the country. The heavy toll that the continued atrocities have had on the population (+250,000 dead) and more than 3.5 million refugees, complicate the prospects of any political solution. Former U.S. official and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Fred Hof said in press call on Tuesday that “any prospect at all of a negotiated political settlement is zero, as long as these daily outrages, these daily atrocities, these daily abominations are taking place.” In his last speech on Monday, Assad showed no indication of compromise, vowing to “cleanse the terrorists.”

In this light, Turkey’s safe zone in Syria stands as an attempt to reverse the backlash from the war, offering the coalition a chance at a more vigorous battle against ISIS, while reining in the PKK. The safe zone, in its current balance and structure, does not promise to be a turning point for the conflict in Syria, nor a cure for its disintegration.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.