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What Can A Safe Zone In Northern Syria Accomplish?

  • Charles Recknagel

A member of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fires toward Islamic State (IS) militants on the southern outskirts of the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh last week.

A member of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fires toward Islamic State (IS) militants on the southern outskirts of the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh last week.

A reported Turkish-U.S. agreement to create an Islamic State-free zone in northern Syria offers both benefits and risks. Here are three to consider:

Cutting Off The Flow Of IS Foreign Fighters To Syria

Foreign fighters are believed to make up the bulk of Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria, and they can enter Syria easily thanks to the group's control of a part of northern Syria that directly abuts the Turkish border.

The area the group controls -- squeezed between Syrian-Kurdish-controlled areas to the east and rebel-controlled and Syrian Kurdish pockets to the west -- is where Turkey and the United States now hope to push IS back to create an "IS-free zone."

One immediate benefit would be to deprive IS of control of the Syrian border towns of Jarablus and Al-Rai, through which the group smuggles in its new recruits. That could weaken its efforts to carve out its own fundamentalist state in Syria and Iraq.

But how the United States and Turkey will remove IS from its 109-kilometer stretch of land along the border is an open question. The plan under discussion reportedly focuses on using air power combined with local forces in Syria in hopes of duplicating the success U.S. air power and Syrian Kurdish fighters achieved in pushing back IS from Kobani late last year. Yet which local forces would be employed remains unclear.

Both the United States and Turkey have said they are willing to assist moderate Syrian rebel groups, but they have differing interpretations of which groups meet that standard. Washington supports secular rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army, while Ankara, along with Saudi Arabia, is reported to have provided support to Sunni fundamentalist groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The secularists and Islamists, however, have their own rivalries and have fought over territory.

Fabrice Balanche, an expert on Syria at the French research center Gremmo in Lyon, notes that Ankara and Riyadh have been willing to support the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate against which Washington has conducted air strikes. The United States has supported the secular Free Syrian Army and, more recently, focused on training moderate rebels it screens itself.

Open, too, is the question of the Syrian Kurds' role. Washington has supported them, but Turkey fears they are seeking to carve out a Kurdish state in northern Syria.

A Safe Haven For Refugees?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the creation of a "safe zone" would pave the way for the return of Syrian refugees from Turkey, which currently hosts some 1.8 million people who have fled the Syrian conflict. But how their needs would be provided for and how their safety would be assured remain uncertain.

To create a safe area, Ankara has long called for establishing a full-scale and declared no-fly zone in northern Syria. But Washington has resisted that demand, and the agreement under discussion reportedly stops short of it. One reason is that unilaterally declaring a no-fly zone in northern Syria would dramatically escalate the possibility of direct U.S. confrontations with the Syrian military and raise tensions with Assad's allies, Russia and Iran.

That leaves question marks around how the zone will be secured -- particularly if local forces supported by the United States and Turkey are riven by divisions. Would either Turkey or the United States then be prepared to send ground forces of their own?

The Kurdish Question

Syrian Kurds have already warned that they see the safe zone as raising the possibility that Turkish forces could eventually move across the border -- something that could transform the effort to keep the IS at bay into a showdown between Ankara and Syrian Kurdish forces allied with Ankara's archenemy, the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The head of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political organization of the Popular Protection Units (YPG) that defeated IS in Kobani with U.S. air support, warned recently that any Turkish forces that did enter Syria would be viewed as "invaders." The YPG is allied with the PKK, which Turkey accuses of seeking to establish a Kurdish state encompassing parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

Ted Karasik, a U.A.E.-based geopolitical analyst, says that even as most observers welcome Turkey's decision to actively join the fight against IS, questions remain over Ankara's ultimate reasons for doing so.

"What is Turkey's endgame here?" he asks. "Are they trying to go after the Islamic State, are they going after Kurdish rebels, are they trying to get more involved in determining Syria's future?"

Turkey has so far shown no intention of sending ground forces across the border, but a sharp upturn in hostilities between Ankara and the PKK in recent days underlines the possibility of events taking sudden turns. After the PKK took credit for the killing of two Turkish policemen on July 22, Ankara launched cross-border air strikes against PKK positions in northern Iraq.

The PKK said the killings were revenge for a suicide bombing that killed 32 Turkish Kurdish activists in the town of Suruc two days earlier -- a bombing it claimed was made possible by Turkish "collaboration" with Sunni Islamist groups fighting Kurds in Syria. Turkey denied the charges and, by bombing both PKK and IS targets on the same day, illustrated how much the region's crises risk overlapping.