What the New U.S.-Turkey Agreement Means for the Syrian People

By Jordan Dannenberg

After months of negotiation, the United States and Turkey have reached an agreement to cooperatively establish an ISIL-free zone along Turkey’s border with Syria. The agreement allows American warplanes access to Turkish air bases—and according to a senior Obama Administration official—may lead to enhanced border security and stability.

As the United States and its allies work to degrade and destroy ISIL, the plight of Syrian refugees worsens. Government forces continue to commit atrocities, including indiscriminately attacking civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Since the start of the conflict, more than 210,000 people have been killed and approximately 10 million have been displaced. In the first six months after its declaration of a caliphate, ISIL killed 1,175 civilians in Syria. This year, it is responsible for the deaths of over 50 Syrian child soldiers.

So can an ISIL-free zone on the border actually help alleviate the human rights and humanitarian issues within and surrounding Syria?

Lasting peace in Syria requires the defeat of ISIL, so a truly ISIL-free zone may be a step in that direction. The zone could be used to train and equip anti-ISIL fighters in a more geographically advantageous location. Turkish air bases, too, are in close proximity to ISIL strongholds. And depending on how far the zone’s border extends, it could push back ISIL from some of its strategically and symbolically important locations such as Dabiq and Manbij.

The agreement also calls for Turkish ground forces to help stem the flow of foreign fighters joining ISIL, most of whom enter Syria through its lengthy border with Turkey. A “safe zone” could also facilitate the formation of an opposition government, the lack of which has impeded negotiations for a political settlement to end the conflict.

However, the military goals associated with creating the proposed zone may conflict with the objectives of better protecting the civilian population and of creating a possible “safe zone” for returning refugees. A zone with active anti-ISIL and Syrian opposition makes a tempting target for ISIL and the Assad regime. Although Syrian government forces have typically stayed out of areas under attack by anti-ISIL coalition forces, the intended buffer zone is more strategically important to Assad. Even if the ISIL-free zone were to evolve into a “safe zone” for refugees, it could also inadvertently become a safe haven for non-ISIL, but still extreme insurgents.

Turkish and U.S. expectations for the zone appear misaligned. On July 25, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explained, “When areas in northern Syria are cleared of the [Islamic State] threat, the safe zones will be formed naturally. People who have been displaced can be placed in those safe areas.” There are currently an estimated 1.8 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The United States, which has been reluctant to engage in military intervention against the Assad regime, rejected the idea that the recent agreement aimed to create an official “safe zone.” A senior administration official stated, “What we are talking about with Turkey is cooperating to support partners on the ground in northern Syria who are countering ISIL.”

The Turkish government has other priorities, including rolling back the Syrian Kurdish fighters, allied with the PKK, who have been the most effective anti-ISIL combatants in Syria. Turkey is more concerned about removing the Assad regime and containing Kurdish influence than it is with defeating ISIL. Last week, United Nations aid chief Stephen O’Brien warned Turkey against calling the intended ISIL-free zone a “safe zone,” absent adequate civilian protection. “What you don’t want to do is call something a safe zone, people flee to it, but it hasn’t got sufficient protection,” he said.

So long as the United States remains unwilling to expand its goal beyond defeating ISIL and set out a broader strategy for ending the conflict, there is no guarantee the ISIL-free zone would be safe from indiscriminate attacks by Assad’s forces. “Safe zones” in past conflicts have been notoriously unsafe for civilians, and refugees should not be forced to move to these locations.

Ultimately, the new agreement between the United States and Turkey would do little to ease the suffering of the Syrian people. Focusing on fighting ISIL alone does not address the root causes of the conflict. Any plan that would overall minimize the degree of human suffering is welcome, but the current approach is no substitute for a comprehensive strategy to bring an end to the conflict and the humanitarian crisis.

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Published on August 7, 2015

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