Ever since the U.S. and Turkey announced an agreement that would see Turkey fight the Islamic State(IS) and grant the U.S. use of a Turkish air base to launch attacks, there has also been talk of a "safe zone" in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
The zone is to be a little more than 60 miles long. Now many weeks later it is still not clear who will be in power in the zone, how it can be kept safe, or even how it can happen given that both Turkey and the U.S. have ruled out using ground troops. Rebel groups will be the proxy force used to capture and run the zone. However, Al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front has ruled out any cooperation with the plan and announced it will withdraw from its front lines with IS in the area. The Front is angry at the continued U.S. bombing of its positions. It has also attacked U.S.-trained rebels who now have refused to fight back against the group. Many rebel groups are incensed that the U.S. attacks the Front. It is not only battling with IS but also contributes key fighters against Assad in many areas.Originally it was thought the zone would include a lot of IS territory but more recently suggestions are that more of the safe zone will border areas controlled by Kurds. This seems incongruous because Kurds are fighting the IS and Kurdish-controlled areas are relatively peaceful. There seems no need for a buffer zone between their areas and Turkey. Such a safe zone would become part of the Turkish battle against the Kurds. It is not clear that the U.S. would cooperate in creating such a zone. Many local people in areas rumoured to be in the "safe zone" regard talk of the zone as empty promises that will not work. They see a continued bombing campaign.Analyst Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut agrees with the locals: “I don’t think we will see anything approaching what even resembles a safe zone. If you’re going to have significant numbers of people sheltering in the zone, you’ll need various things — like electricity, fuel, water tanks, piping, clinics.” Neither Turkey nor the U.S. are drawing up plans for these large humanitarian and reconstructions projects. Instead they are launching a PR campaign for what he claims is an unworkable project.According to international law safe zones are neutral areas where civilians are guaranteed protection. American officials envision a zone 68 miles long and 40 miles deep that would reach the outskirts of Aleppo. It would be a staging area for US-backed rebels to attack the Islamic State. This would obviously not be a safe zone as ordinarily understood. The plan also ignores that there are few US-backed rebels left. Most rebel groups receive no U.S. aid and are not on good terms with the US since the rebels main aim is not to fight IS or the Nusra Front but Assad forces.The U.S. officials said the zone would not be declared a protected area. Turkey wanted the zone to serve as a refuge for Syrian refugees and prevent the continued influx of refugees into Turkey itself. If rebel attacks are being launched from the zone refugees would hardly be safe from attack.Turkey wants part of the zone to be policed by a radical Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham, that cooperates with the Nusra Front. The U.S. is unlikely to agree to this. Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East says:The outlines of the zone have been talked about since late in July. The original plan involved driving the IS out of a 68-mile-long area west of the Euphrates River into the province of Aleppo. The area would come under control of the Syrian opposition. Clearly it is not a "safe zone." The area would not be a no-fly zone but the US has already announced that it will attack any group that attacks US-trained rebel groups. However, those troops are few in number at present and obviously other rebel groups would be required to control the area. The plan would result in IS losing control of all border crossings into Turkey and help stop the influx of foreign fighters. The plan could also bring the U.S. in direct conflict with Assad forces should the US defend the area against Assad bombing or other attacks.
“The plan is nebulous. The area is huge; it’s not well-defined. There may be local governance structures set up” in the zone but it’s not a textbook safe zone.”Given that the area will be a staging ground for attacks on IS, the role of organizations providing aid to refugees will be complicated. Refugees will no doubt continue to flood into Turkey to avoid what will be a battle zone. The appended video has U.S. officials denying there is even any agreement on the zone in contrast to reports from Turkey.