In recent years, as military, political, and security conflicts have escalated in a number of Arab and non-Arab countries, various areas from West Asia to North Africa have become the scene for the Turkish government’s “growing ambitions”.
In the latest Turkish expansionist move, the president of that country announced that the Turkish military would launch a new military operation for the establishment of “safe zones” 32km along the southern border with northern Syria.
Since 2016, the Erdogan government has always sought to establish a safe zone in northern Syria, but each time has failed to advance the plan due to international and regional opposition and obstacles.
The Turkish government believes that by clearing Tal Rifaat and Manbij, west of the Euphrates, which have become the location for the so-called terrorist attacks against Turkey, and thus taking control of the M-4 highway, it has facilitated the rapid, targeted and expanded operation and has accelerated preparation for the return of Syrian refugees to a “32 km safe deep”!
Effective variables in re-establishment of safe zone plan
Two important variables seem to influence the plan to re-establish a safe zone in northern Syria: first, the “Ukraine war” and the second, the “US green light”.
In this regard, the re-establishment of the safe zone cannot be unrelated to the war in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine, which has brought major powers, including Russia, to the country, has provided an “opportunity” for Turkey to put into operation, if possible, a plan on the sidelines of the war, it has pursued for years, but each time has encountered with the opposition from Russia and other regional and global powers.
Russia’s direct involvement in the Ukraine war has reduced its political, security, and even military focus in Syria and somewhat distanced it from developments in that country. The Turkish government sees this as a great opportunity to make the necessary preparations while the great powers of the world engaged in the war in Ukraine, with the groups it supports in northern Syria which have not good relations with Russia and are counting the moments for Moscow’s defeat in Ukraine, and provide for the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria more quickly through military operations.
In addition, the plan could not be proposed or implemented without the knowledge, coordination and support of the Americans. In this regard, two “points” are important:
First, available information indicates that several meetings have been held in recent months between the two countries’ military officers in northern Syria. Also, during the recent meeting of the Turkish and American foreign ministers in New York, the plan to create a safe zone was discussed. The United States has apparently “agreed” behind the scenes with some consideration because of its need for Turkey in order to isolate the Russians in the Ukraine war.
Turkey’s declared, applicable objectives
Regarding Turkey’s safe haven in northern Syria, two categories of “declared” and “applicable” objectives can be identified:
Declared objectives: The most important declared objectives in this regard is to prevent the Syrian Kurds from gaining power, which Ankara considers a threat against itself. Of course, this also has domestic implications for Erdogan’s government in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, which has come under fire from Kurdish threats.
Controlling Kurdish terrorism of Syrian origin has always been Erdogan’s justification for creating a safe zone in Syria. To achieve this, Turkey has so far conducted three operations in northern Syria: a military operation west of the Euphrates called the “Euphrates Shield” in 2016, a military operation in Afrin known as the “Olive Branch” in 2018, and a military operation east of the Euphrates called the “Fountain of Peace” in 2019.
Creation of a 30-kilometer zone for the safe transfer of Syrian refugees to their country and, consequently, reduction of their accommodation costs in Turkey, is another declared objective.
Applicable objectives: But the objective that has prompted Turkey to establish a safe zone along its southern border with Syria is to achieve strategic, “long-term” interests that Ankara has been pursuing for years. In this regard, two major objectives are of particular interest:
First, consolidation and stabilization of the presence and influence in Syria at a time when the Russians are gradually downsizing their forces;
Second, changing the demographic structure of northern Turkey by sending Turkish citizens to northern Syria and thus facilitating the process of its annexation to Turkey.
Attempts to establish a safe zone in northern Syria is violation of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of that country by the Turkish government which could become very “costly” for Ankara. The move is a clear evidence of the Turkish government’s illegal intervention in northern Syria and creating problems for Syria through the crisis, which could lead to a “tough response” from the Syrian government and army to Turkish military intervention.
“To come into conflict with Russia” is another possible consequence of establishing a safe zone in northern Syria. Although the Russians have somewhat reduced their military presence in Syria in order to strengthen the battlefield in Ukraine, this has never meant “retreating from the country’s red political and field lines” in Syria.
In recent days, following the announcement of the imminent Turkish operation in northern Syria, Russia is strengthening its position in the country by sending military equipment, including fighter jets and a number of helicopters to its military base at Qamishli Airport in northeastern Syria. This is while the Russian Foreign Minister also emphasized, Moscow will continue to support the Syrian leadership in fully restoring its territorial integrity.
Attempts to establish a safe zone in northern Syria is a small piece of a “big puzzle” of the Turkish government in the region that can be assessed within the context of Ankara’s neo-Ottoman policies; policies that, despite extensive efforts for their implementation, have been practically unachievable. Arab nations do not have good memories and experiences from the time of the Ottoman Empire; therefore they resist any strategy, policy and attempt to restore the former position of the Ottoman Empire in their lands.