“The world has forgotten about Alan Kurdi too quickly,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly this past September. He said this and more all while holding the picture of the boy that so rocked the world just a few years prior. Yet, his words rang hollow as they were followed by a call for the establishment of a safe zone that, while seemingly well-intentioned, would not actually help little boys like Alan, but would instead continue to serve as a deterrent to asylum claims for refugees and force repatriation to a still insecure region of Syria.
Following the sudden withdrawal of one thousand U.S. troops from northern Syria in October of this year, Turkey began its third military incursion into the region. For Erdogan, this decision was not solely a mission to repel Kurdish forces. Yes, that was undoubtedly a large part stemming from years of armed conflict and dispute between the Turkish state and the Kurds. As, in Syria, the YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Units),is considered an extension of the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) which is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, and a number of other countries. But, this was also a decision stemming from widespread domestic political pressure mounting within Turkey to ‘resolve’ the refugee crisis. After days of clashes with Kurdish forces, Turkey and Russia brokered a deal to establish Erdogan’s proposed ‘safe zone,’ which would achieve both of his goals: repel Kurds, and create a space to which Turkey could forcibly repatriate Syrian refugees.
A ‘safe zone’ as defined by Human Rights Watch is an “area designated by agreement of parties to an armed conflict in which military forces will not deploy or carry out attacks.” Such areas are technically different from ‘no-fly-zones’ and ‘demilitarized zones’ however they are often jointly employed.
Necessarily then, combattants must not be present within such an established area, meaning, the creation of a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria grants latitude to Turkish forces to repel Kurdish forces, as evidenced by a statement from Erdogan that Turkish forces would “crush Kurdish militia fighters if they did not withdraw from the ‘safe zone’,” which constitutes a 19 mile deep zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. This shifting of territory following the U.S. withdrawal and abandonment of its Kurdish allies, and subsequent Turkish offensive has already, since October 9th, displaced over 200,000 civilians in the region, exacerbating the problem Turkey is claiming to address.
Still, proponents of the ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria continue to be vocal about its proposed value. If properly established and secured, safe zones serve to create a space within a conflict zone where civilians can seek shelter without having to leave and travel to another country seeking asylum. Echoing sentiments expressed in Erdogan’s UNGA speech, routes to seek asylum outside of Syria are notoriously dangerous for refugees. The establishment of a safe zone within Syria where refugees would be able to go, would help them avoid the dangers of abuses by smugglers, or travel related death, like drowning, the cause of so much loss in the Mediterranean, and what claimed the life of Alan Kurdi.
But, what is deliberately understated by Erdogan, and all those support the ‘safe zone’, is that the success of a safe zone is wholly determinate upon the maintenance of the security of the established area. From Kibeho in Rwanda, to Mullaitivu in Sri Lanka to, Srebrenica in Bosnia, safe zones have failed remain ‘safe’ for long, and have more often than not ended in historic tragedy. If Erdogan is to pursue his stated goal of resettling two million refugees to this ‘safe zone’ he will almost indelibly be subjecting them to the very danger and violence that caused them to flee.
The very real threat in northern Syria is not a proposed resurgence of ISIS which has been touted by many as a fear, but the violence of Syrian government forces in Idlib. A city that is already overwhelmed by internally displaced people, and the last opposition-held territory in Syria, Idlib is an obvious target for the Assad regime. Under the guise of targeting terrorists, the Syrian government and its Russian backers have maintained a persistent violent campaign in the region that is not likely to cease was a ‘safe zone’ to be established. So, for how long is Erdogan willing to keep his ‘safe zone’ safe? Or after political will to keep pouring money, troops, and resources into northern Syria runs out, will Turkey pull out like the U.S. did? A safe zone can only ever be a temporary solution, and when it comes to repatriation -- which should be the ‘end’ of refugeedom, this is ephemeral at best.
3.6 Million refugees live in Turkey, and despite being welcoming at first, with international financial support waning, it is no secret that Erdogan would like to lower this number. Reports have already come out from Amnesty International revealing that, under threat of violence or in exchange for necessary goods like food, water, and blankets, Syrian refugees in Turkey are being coerced into signing ‘voluntary return’ agreements. Turkish officials claim that to date 315,000 people have already left for Syria on a ‘voluntary’ basis, however Erdogan is looking to up that number nearly six times over in the next few years. As one of the report writers, Anna Shea, says “Turkey deserves recognition for hosting more than 3.6 million women, men and children from Syria for more than eight years, but it cannot use this generosity as an excuse to flout international and domestic law by deporting people to an active conflict zone.”
Erdogan’s plan achieves a number of his goals, it repels Kurds from the Turkish-Syrian border, in-essence, engineering the region to be majority Arab instead of Kurdish, and it creates a place to repatriate refugees, lifting the hosting burden from the Turkish state. However, serious problems arise due to the danger of destabilizing an already tenously held region of Syria, a lack of infrastructure capable of adequately hosting such numbers, and a lack of ability on behalf of Turkey to ensure security in the so-called ‘safe zone' particularly for the long term. These too are just the risks assuming that Turkey is truly repatriating refugees voluntarily -- much more likely is a continuation of the practice of forced repatriation in violation of international law and to the detriment of the individuals sent there.
A ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria will not protect little boys like Alan Kurdi fleeing violence, it will subject them to further violence. Under the guise of assistance, Turkey’s short-sighted solution is not and cannot be built to last.