Fear of migrants brings Europe on side with Erdoğan’s Syria safe zone plan

As thousands of migrants faced off against Greek security forces on the country’s border with Turkey this week, European leaders began throwing their weight behind the creation of a safe zone in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib.

Turkish authorities made it known that they would grant free passage to migrants heading to Europe after weeks of escalation in Idlib, the last rebel-held province in Syria, culminated in bombardment that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers last Thursday.

Reports say most of the thousands of migrants who heeded Turkey’s message are not from Idlib or even Syria, but are irregular migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, who could face deportation from Turkey under normal circumstances. The leaders of Greece and Austria have accused Turkey of using asylum seekers to blackmail its neighbours.

But the EU must understand that this is only a small taste of what will come if Idlib falls to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made it abundantly clear that his country will not take on another large influx of migrants alone.

A refugee crisis had already been brewing for months before Turkey’s drastic move last Friday. Europe turned a blind eye while the trouble was still far from its border, but the bombardment unleashed by Assad’s forces and their Russian allies during the offensive on Idlib has created the largest wave of displacement in the entire nine years of the conflict.

The United Nations estimates that the offensive drove more than 900,000 people to the border with Turkey, where some 800,000 were already bearing a freezing winter in makeshift camps.

A great many of these people fled to Idlib from other parts of Syria as they were captured by pro-Assad forces. As Emre Kürşat Kaya, an analyst for the Turkey-based Centre for Economics and Policy Studies, wrote on Wednesday, the Syrian government has made it clear that it will grant no guarantees for the safety of civilians it deems untrustworthy. There is no going back for many who have fled Assad’s violence.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council Foreign Relations Co-chair Carl Bildt have realised that many of these will quickly become Europe’s problem if no solution is found in Idlib. On Tuesday, the chancellor discussed the formation of a safe zone in the province with fellow conservative lawmakers, Reuters reported.

The subject may have come up in the phone call the German Chancellor shared with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the same day – a slim consolation for Merkel, who criticised Putin for spurning the four-way meeting he had scheduled with her, French President Emmanuel Macron and Erdoğan on Thursday. Instead, it will be Erdoğan’s meeting with Putin in Moscow when the terms of a safe zone are reached, that is if they are reached.

Turkey is still pressing the attack after watching its rebel allies lose ground in Idlib for months. The Syrian government’s offensive has pushed the rebel front lines back far behind the limits of the de-escalation zone negotiated by Erdoğan and Putin in the 2018 ceasefire deal they signed in Sochi.

This has left four Turkish observation posts surrounded by hostile Syrian government forces. Russia accused Turkey of breaking its side of the Sochi deal and allowing the remaining Turkish posts to merge with what it called terrorist groups that were launching attacks on Russian military posts in Latakia province, a Syrian government stronghold south of Idlib.

Russia may be willing to accept a safe zone as the solution that preserves the close relations the two countries have shared outside the Syrian arena. Erdoğan touched on the idea of an area stretching 30 km into Syria from the border with Turkey. 

Erdoğan's proposed safe zone

A safe zone of this size would cede large parts of the province, including the vital M5 and M4 highways, to the Syrian government, drawing the boundaries far back from the areas agreed in Sochi to just outside the city of Idlib. But it would ease the pressure on the millions of civilians in the province and bring an end to bombardment by Syrian and Russian warplanes, which have been striking targets far behind the front lines of fighting.

And, while Russia has held to a very broad definition of what constitutes an extremist group, one of the most powerful jihadist forces, Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), signalled last week that it would be willing to moderate its line given the right circumstances.

HTS’s leader “is sending a message to the United States and other countries that he is ready to change HTS towards a more local group and if there will be a safe zone around Idlib, HTS can disappear," Muhsen Almustafa, a researcher at Istanbul-based think tank Omran, told Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT World.

This may not be enough for Assad’s government, which has shown no willingness to compromise on its aim of taking back control of Syrian territory in full. The last deal Turkey struck with Russia after launching a military operation against Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria last October only allowed for joint patrols in a narrow area bordering Turkey, dealing a blow to Erdoğan’s hopes for an extensive safe zone to resettle some of the millions of Syrian asylum seekers in Turkey.

But this time, with Europe’s leaders feeling under threat by a possible migrant influx from Idlib, the international tide is not against Erdoğan.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has already mooted possible sanctions on Russia over its actions in Syria, also calling for a safe zone. After years of demanding the international community back his plans to create such a zone south of Turkey’s border, Erdoğan may finally get his way.


© Ahval English