ECFR Report on Turkey’s Border Policy in Northern Syria: A New Gaza

Turkey now controls a long stretch of Syrian territory along its southern border that hosts nearly four million people, most of them Sunni Arabs.

The challenges for Turkey there include a difficult balancing act with Russia, the huge financial costs of direct rule, the presence of radical Islamist factions, and the lack of a modus vivendi with the Kurds.

Turkey faces the risk of the “Gazafication” of the area – the emergence of a militarily controlled territory that is perennially poverty-stricken and unstable.

EU member states can find ways to cooperate with Turkey to support stabilisation in parts of the safe zone, without violating their interests and core principles.

They should single out the Euphrates Shield Zone for stabilisation work, on the understanding that other areas captured from the Kurds are politically sensitive for European governments and voters alike.

Europe should aim to strike a grand bargain with Turkey: in return for targeted European reconstruction aid to the safe zone, the country would lift its veto on stabilisation in Kurdish-controlled areas, allow trade between these zones, or agree to Kurdish participation in the UN-led political process on Syria.

For decades, Turkish leaders pledged that their country would never pursue any sort of territorial expansion – presiding as they did over a modern nation-state built upon the ashes of a vast empire. They considered Turkey’s borders to be sacrosanct. But, now, the country controls a stretch of Syria along its southern border that effectively expands Turkish rule. This sudden experiment in social engineering beyond Turkey’s borders reflects a quiet revolution in Turkish foreign policy. And it presents major challenges that, ultimately, may affect Turkey’s ability to control this area or pursue its broader goals in Syria.

Today, the most significant part of Turkey’s Syria policy is its creation of this “safe zone” in northern Syria overseen by friendly administrations. The residents of the area – most of them Sunni Arabs – are dependent on Turkish political, economic, and logistical support. Ankara’s overarching goal in this 30km-deep zone is to ensure that it remains outside the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and semi-autonomous from the regime in Damascus. Turkish leaders also hope to persuade Syrian refugees in Turkey to move to the area – though they have had little success with this so far. Ankara regards its military footprint in Syria as key to protecting Turkey’s long-term territorial integrity and to having a say in the fate of Syria.

The area is not contiguous but a patchwork of administrations that Turkey carved out in successive military incursions between 2016 and 2020. The safe zone comprises areas under direct Turkish rule – Tel Abyad, Jarablus, and Afrin – and Idlib, which is under Turkey’s military protection but ruled by an autonomous administration. Ankara seems to be bracing itself to maintain a military presence in the safe zone in the long term.

Yet Turkish decision-makers will have to deal with the implications of administering a Sunni Arab-majority area in northern Syria. For instance, it is unclear whether Turkey should create a durable order there or whether the project is worth its financial cost. It remains to be seen whether Turkey can co-exist with radical Sunni opposition factions close to its border and reach a modus vivendi with Kurds inside and outside the safe zone. What happens in the area will be determined not just by Turkey but also by Russia, the United States, and the Syrian regime. And there is a risk of the “Gazafication” of the safe zone – that is, the emergence of a militarily controlled territory that is perennially poverty-stricken and unstable. All these factors could create a prolonged domestic and international political headache for Ankara.

The European Union and its member states have never found it easy to understand Turkey’s aims in Syria – but they need to pay close attention to the situation. Turkey remains a key partner for Europe. Some EU member states are unwilling to support a revisionist Turkey or legitimise what they see as Turkish occupation in Syria. And many have concerns about Turkey’s hardline approach to the Kurdish issue in Syria and its displacement of Kurds in border regions. But the Turkish-European partnership in Syria does not have to involve a binary choice: there are ways for Europe to support stabilisation in parts of the Turkish-controlled safe zone without violating European interests and core principles, or attempting to legitimise a long-term Turkish presence in Syria under international law. While EU member states have a firm policy of opposition to reconstruction in Syria before a political transition, the truth is that the war in Syria is almost over – and the Assad regime has won. As Julien Barnes-Dacey recently argued, European governments should adjust to this reality and pivot to a strategy to protect the social forces that are still standing in the war-torn country who are best placed to bring about a gradual transformation in Syria.

The paper examines the objectives and implications of Ankara’s creation of the safe zone. It analyses how the evolution of Turkish policy on northern Syria has shaped Ankara’s relations with Kurdish-run areas and Idlib, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s domestic narrative, life in the safe zone, and the prospects that Turkey will maintain a presence in the area in the long term. The paper then explores the five key challenges Turkey faces in the safe zone. Finally, it makes a set of recommendations for Europe’s approach to engaging with Turkey in northern Syria, in line with European concerns, interests, and principles.

Europe should single out the Euphrates Shield Zone (ESZ) for stabilisation work, on the understanding that other areas Turkey captured from the Kurds are politically sensitive for European governments and voters alike. Europeans will inevitably dislike the idea of tying humanitarian aid or reconstruction efforts to political decisions. But they can, for example, throw their weight behind Turkey’s demand for a new border crossing in Tel Abyad and for reconstruction there, in return for the removal of the Turkish veto on humanitarian aid to Kurdish-controlled areas or trade between Kurdish and Arab areas in northern Syria. Such deals would provide humanitarian relief and confidence-building measures to fractured Syrian communities at this late stage in the war.

No doubt, Europe will have to engage with Turkey in ways that accommodate European principles and concerns. By acting collectively, EU member states can push for a grand bargain with Turkey, whereby, in return for targeted European reconstruction and stabilisation aid in the safe zone, Turkey lifts its veto on reconstruction in Kurdish areas or allows Syrian Kurds to participate in the UN-led political process on the future of Syria. That, in itself, would remove a major obstacle to the UN process and strengthen the international push for political transition to end the conflict in Syria.

The report by the well-known EU think tank „ECFR“ can be downloaded here.