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Turkiye’s ‘Safe Zone’ Policy and Syrian Refugees

Ms Gayathri Pramod Panamoottil is an Intern at the West Asia Centre, the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.
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  • February 20, 2024

    The outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 led to the displacement of nearly 12 million people to neighbouring countries such as Turkiye, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.1 Turkiye hosts approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees, making it the country with the largest refugee population from Syria.2 Turkiye shares the longest land border with Syria amongst its neighbouring nations. Initially, Turkiye adopted an 'open door' policy to admit victims of the Syrian civil war into the country. However, as the situation in Syria continued to deteriorate, Turkiye gradually adopted measures to protect its borders.

    During the Syrian civil war, the Kurds in Syria fought against the Assad regime as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Kurds declared autonomy in Kurdish-majority north-eastern Syria and established the Rojava autonomous region. This emerged as a security challenge for Turkiye, which feared that the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) would be further strengthened by their Syrian compatriots, the People's Protection Units (YPG).

    Syrian refugees in Turkiye and the rising threat from Kurds in northern Syria pushed Ankara to take steps to enhance its border security. Ankara decided to create a buffer zone in northern Syria along its borders which it termed as ‘safe zones’.3 Its objectives were primarily to contain the flow of Syrian refugees and to ensure that the northern Syrian region is not used by the Kurds to launch attacks on Turkiye. As the Syrian crisis continued to linger, Ankara decided to settle Syrian refugees in the safe zone. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated in 2015 that once ISIS was eliminated from northern Syria, the safe zones would naturally emerge as havens for displaced Syrian refugees.4

    Turkiye took a series of measures to protect its border with Syria. It built four-metre high concrete wall with barbed wire and employed various security measures, including aerial and land surveillance systems, active border patrol units, among other steps.5 Turkiye also launched military operations to eradicate ISIS presence. It launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 to eradicate ISIS presence from the Syrian border area and prevent the establishment of a ‘terror corridor’.6 More than 2,000 ISIS terrorists were neutralised in this operation. In January 2018, Turkiye launched Operation Olive Branch to counter the Kurdish and ISIS threats in Afrin. Turkiye claimed that it cleared an area of approximately 2,000 Sq kms by March 2018. Again, in October 2019, Turkiye launched Operation Peace Spring to liberate approximately 8,234 Sq kms of territory in northern Syria, extending up to 30 kilometres from the border, which was previously controlled by various terrorist factions.7 Similarly, Operation Winter Eagle was conducted in February 2022 and Operation Claw-Sword was carried out in November 2022 primarily against Kurdish militia groups.

    Turkiye justified its military interventions in Syria on multiple grounds, including the prevention of potential waves of migration, counterterrorism, and protection of its borders. Turkiye has been able to keep the Kurdish militias away from the border and has created a buffer zone. This has allowed Turkiye to build the infrastructure required for settling the refugees in those areas. In 2023, Turkiye's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that over 550,000 Syrian refugees have returned to Syria since the creation of the safe zone.8 He also stated that Turkiye is talking with the Syrian government and urged the UN and the international community for support in this regard.

    Syrian Response

    Following Turkiye’s military interventions and creation of a safe zone in Northern Syria, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates stated that Turkiye’s actions were blatant violations of international law and the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Syria. Syria alleged that the Turkish behaviour contradicted the understandings and outputs of the Astana process. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal stated that as per international law, the Turkish Armed Forces must take all possible measures to avoid and minimise the loss of civilian life, injuries to civilians and damage to civilian objects during military operations. He also added that Turkiye should provide compensation for civilian deaths and injuries as well.9

    As for the Astana process, it was initiated in 2017 by Russia, Iran and Turkiye to help resolve the Syrian conflict. It focused on de-escalation zones, ceasefire monitoring, and humanitarian aid delivery, with initial meetings held in the Kazakh capital, Astana. The Astana process aimed to create conditions for voluntary return of refugees by establishing stability and security, but challenges such as ongoing violence and destruction caused by the civil war hindered success.

    The 21st round of Astana process was held in January 2024, where issues relating to the fight against terrorism, regional developments, political process, the return of Syrians as well as matters of humanitarian assistance were discussed. The Joint Statement released at the end of the meeting called for

    ‘continuation of efforts for the restoration of relations between Türkiye and Syria on the basis of mutual respect, goodwill and good-neighborly relations in order to combat terrorism, create proper conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of Syrians with the involvement of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), revitalize the political process and ensure the unimpeded flow of humanitarian aid to all Syrians.’10


    Turkiye's establishment of safe zones in Northern Syria served a dual purpose – to create a protective buffer area and facilitate the relocation of Syrian refugees from Turkiye, while preventing the spill over of terrorism into Turkish territory. However, the volatile nature of the region, characterised by the presence of various armed groups and conflicting interests of different states and non-state groups, have been the major challenges for Turkiye.

    The conflict in Syria meanwhile has reached a stalemate, presenting limited prospects for a prompt political resolution. While violence has significantly decreased, sporadic skirmishes persist in both the northwest and northeast regions of Syria. The Assad government exerts control over approximately 70 per cent of Syrian territory. The Syrian government's efforts to reclaim territories lost during the civil war adds another layer of complexity to the situation.

    Five foreign powers (Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and the United States) have military presence in the region. Additionally, the remnants of ISIS periodically launch attacks, further complicating the situation. Consequently, the border region between Turkiye and Syria remains highly unstable, posing a potential risk of armed conflict.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.