29 July 2015
Rather than serve as safe havens for allies, they are much more likely to serve as bases from which groups that vehemently oppose the West can perpetuate their war against the Assad regime.
Neil Quilliam

Dr Neil Quilliam

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Jonathan Friedman

Middle East Expert, Stroz Friedberg; Associate, Centre for Turkey Studies


Turkish armed forces take security measures in Kilis on the Syrian border on 28 July 2015. Photo by Getty Images.
Turkish armed forces take security measures in Kilis on the Syrian border on 28 July 2015. Photo by Getty Images.


In the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US policy-makers scrambled to persuade Turkey to join the coalition against Saddam Hussein. The backing of Muslim-majority Turkey, in their view, would have pre-empted accusations in the region that the US was waging war against Islam. Ankara eventually rejected the US’s entreaties, and Western troops partnered instead with Iraqi Kurds in the march on Baghdad. Despite Ankara’s protests, US-Kurdish cooperation formed the foundation for a Kurdish statelet in Iraq’s north, today the only part of that country with effective government.

Over a decade later, Turkey once against sees US-Kurdish cooperation on its border – this time in Syria – and fears the effect on its own restive Kurdish minority. Learning from the Iraq experience, Turkey has chosen instead to partner with the US. Its price for joining the coalition against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was the creation of safe zones along Syria’s northern border and a licence to target the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) across the border. This may allow it to block the emergence of a Syrian Kurdish regional government mirroring its counterpart in Iraq, but it will alienate the West’s best allies on the ground in Syria, and distract the US from the war against ISIS.

Triple play

Ankara has long advocated creating a safe zone in northern Syria, seeing it as a panacea against a number of ills. The zone will reinvigorate the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel groups preferred by the West, who will be able to launch attacks against Bashar al-Assad’s regime from the zone without fear of retaliatory bombing raids. Arguably, it will also be used to resettle some of Turkey’s two million-strong Syrian refugee population. However, Turkey and the US are not creating no-fly zones, as such, but a number of ‘ink spot’ safe zones, which will be unlikely to accommodate a significant number of refugees. Most importantly, for Turkey, the creation of safe zones will permanently separate the Kurdish-controlled territories of Kobani and Jezira in the east from Afrin in the west, preventing the Kurds from establishing a self-governed crescent from eastern Iraq across Syria and towards the Mediterranean.

As argued in a new Chatham House paper, Turkey is not irredeemably opposed to Kurdish self-rule, provided it is subordinate to Ankara. This describes the relationship that Turkey has with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, which is now dependent on Turkey for its export routes. Turkey aims to establish a  comparable relationship with Syria’s Kurds, and will likely return to peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – the dominant Kurdish force in Syria and Turkey - once it feels it has established its authority over the Kurdish communities in Syria.

Trading partners

While the priority of the US remains destroying and degrading ISIS, Turkey’s goal in Syria is to depose the Bashar al-Assad regime and control the Kurdish movement. US interests align more naturally with Syria’s main Kurdish party − the PKK-aligned PYD − which considers ISIS its main enemy, not the Syrian regime. The coordination between US fighter aircraft and PKK-aligned ground forces has proven effective at pushing back ISIS and recovering key cities, towns and territory. The US-Turkish agreement, therefore, risks undermining this key relationship and ceding ground to ISIS.

Furthermore, there is a high risk that the alliance with Turkey will drag the US away from its narrow focus of degrading ISIS and towards regime change. Although this might be seen as a desirable outcome, the ISIS-free safe zones will provide bases for not only the largely ineffective Western-friendly FSA, but also extremist groups Nusra Front and Arar al-Sham, which share affiliations with Al-Qaeda. Neither they nor Turkey want to see the PKK gain advantage in Syria or further embolden efforts to establish and maintain Rojava, the three Kurdish self-declared autonomous cantons. As a result, they are unlikely to be reliable partners. It is not inconceivable that they could provide false intelligence, leading the coalition to strike against the PKK and its affiliates rather than ISIS.

It is difficult to envision the few hundred fighters trained by the coalition’s ‘train and equip’ programme managing to persuade extremist groups to turn their attention away from the Assad regime and towards ISIS; it is much more likely to be the other way around. As such, the safe zones are much more likely to serve as bases from which Syrian opposition groups will launch operations against the regime, enjoying the protection of air cover, rather than fight ISIS.

At face value, the prospect of establishing safe zones in Syria appears to be a positive development. However, in their current form, they are unlikely to serve as safe havens for Syrian refugees or areas for the Syrian opposition to practice governance. They are much more likely to serve as bases from which groups that vehemently oppose the West can perpetuate their war against the Assad regime. At the same time, the US has ceded valuable political ground to Turkey, which will use these zones to establish hegemony over Syria’s Kurds, rather than to fight ISIS.

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