Haid Haid

Turkey’s de facto safe zone in northern Syria

The recent Turkish-led offensive against ISIS, coupled with US air cover, offers rebels the no-fly zone they have desperately craved

Turkish soldiers stand in a Turkish army tank driving back to Turkey from the Syrian-Turkish border town of Jarablus on September 1, 2016 in the Turkish-Syrian border town of Karkamis. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Turkey has recently revived its proposal to establish a safe zone inside Syria. In an interview with France 24, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara is planning to send troops 45 kilometers [into Syria] “to secure the Manbij pocket and this area will become a de facto safe zone.” According to Cavusoglu, the plan aims to boost security and allow more refugees to return home while also enabling additional local Syrian troops to be trained for the continued fight against ISIS. Despite the failure of Turkey’s previous attempts to create a no-fly zone in Syria, recent developments, locally and internationally, show clear signs that a de facto safe zone, protected by US air power, is now being carved out in northern Syria.


Turkey has been calling for the creation of a no-fly zone along the Turkish border with Syria since 2012. Turkey believes that such a buffer would help shield it from the instability in Syria, control the influx of Syrian refugees into the country and prevent Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous administration along the Turkish border. However, the US and other NATO members have consistently shot down proposals to set up a formal safe zone inside Syria, which they fear could require military operations that would lead the organization into direct conflict with Russia.


The ongoing Turkish-led military operation against ISIS in Syria has played a crucial role in sidestepping previous objections and establishing facts on the ground to create a de facto no-fly zone. Turkish troops and special forces, backed by allied Syrian rebel groups, last month launched Operation Euphrates Shield to capture the border town of Jarablus in northern Syria and push ISIS and the Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border. The subsequent rapid advance of the Turkish-led coalition against ISIS seems to have revived Turkey’s plan to create a no-fly zone. According to a recent report by the Financial Times, “Turkey plans to deepen its involvement in Syria by establishing a de facto safe zone that could eventually cover some 4,000 sq km of territory.” The plan involves consolidating and extending recently captured territory south of the Turkish border. Similarly, Ibrahim Hamidi, senior editor at the Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat, reported that Turkey is planning to establish a safe zone with the deployment “of 3,000 Syrian rebel fighters and dozens of Turkish special forces.”


Unlike with their previous proposals, Turkey has been able to gain tacit international support for their new de facto safe zone. The US has agreed to provide air cover for the Turkish-led operations inside Syria. More recently, the US reportedly sent special operations troops to work alongside the Turkish-led forces in northern Syria. The importance of this increased military cooperation between the US and Turkey goes beyond the immediate military achievements in the fight against ISIS. The presence of US troops and the promise of air cover has turned Turkey’s de facto safe zone into a no-fly zone as well. Although the US has not officially declared a no-fly zone in Syria, the Pentagon recently warned the Syrian regime that it is prepared to shoot down any planes threatening US forces in northern Syria. Furthermore, Turkey’s offensive inside Syria was preceded by a rapprochement with Russia, after an eight-month rift triggered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in late 2015, which could make Moscow more willing to accept a Turkish zone of influence in Syria.


As a part of its efforts to establish a de facto no-fly zone in Syria, Turkey is commencing plans to provide public services and humanitarian aid in recently captured areas and facilitate the voluntary return of Syrian refugees. Turkish migration offices would help Syrians return to their country after studying their applications and providing them with a security clearance. Approximately 3,000 Syrian refugees have already left Turkey and returned to Jarablus after ISIS fighters were ousted from the city. Turkey has also announced plans to provide Jarablus with electricity and water. "Having kicked Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] out of Jarablus, our next goal is to help bring life back to normal in the area. With hundreds of Syrian refugees returning to recently liberated areas across the Turkish-Syrian border, supplying electricity to Jarablus is a crucial step to accomplish that task," an official from the Turkish Ministry of Energy told Daily Sabah, a newspaper allied with the ruling Justice and Development Party. Furthermore, a delegation from the Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality reportedly visited Jarablus to oversee reconstruction efforts and provided support and heavy machinery to clear rubble and trash from the city. Similarly, Turkey's disaster management agency AFAD announced the beginning of operations to deliver aid and basic food supplies to Jarablus and restore bakeries in the area.


Turkey has never been closer to accomplishing its goal of creating a no-fly zone in Syria. However, characterizing the territory recently captured by Turkish-led forces as a permanent no-fly zone, based on the aforementioned developments alone, would be jumping to conclusions. The future of the de facto no-fly zone depends greatly on Turkey’s continued ability to gain more international support for the idea and its improving relations with regime backers, namely Russia and Iran, to keep them and their Syrian government allies from striking the area.


Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22

Turkish soldiers stand in a Turkish army tank driving back to Turkey from the Syrian-Turkish border town of Jarablus on September 1, 2016 in the Turkish-Syrian border town of Karkamis. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Turkey plans to deepen its involvement in Syria by establishing a de facto safe zone that could eventually cover some 4,000 sq km of territory.

  • dutchnational

    With the first counterattack IS almost kicked the turkish mercenaries out of the just invaded area. To extend it to 4.000 kms2 means to attack the SDF which already holds more then 1.000 of those 4.000 kms2 and is advancing steadily from the west and soon also from the east. Erdogans ottomaniac dreams of past glory

    September 27, 2016