Syria, uncomfortably and vulnerably, finds itself sandwiched between the Ottoman hammer to the North and the Israeli anvil to the South. Both power houses are, hostile, expansionist and occupy Syrian territory. When one thinks of a ‘safe zone’ along the Syrian-Turkish border on the Syrian side, one is reminded of the American-Mexican border. Both borders face a similar security situation: one state faces security threats emanating from the neighboring state.
The American-Mexican border has long been a source of security concerns in Washington due to the influx of illegal Latin American immigrants, known pejoratively as the ‘wet backs’ – as they would get wet crossing the Rio Grande River to US mainland. To deal with border security, Trump did not consider establishing a ‘safe zone’ on the Mexican side of the border, for such a zone would have to be occupied and ruled by the American military, in violation of international law and Mexico’s sovereign and territorial integrity. Instead, Trump decided to build a wall on the American side of the border to alleviate the security threat.
Similarly, Erdogan views the concentration of anti-Turkish armed Kurds, whom he considers terrorists, on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border, a threat to Turkey’s national security. However, he does not think a wall is good enough to deal with the Kurdish threat. He opted, ironically with Trump’s blessings and partnership, to establish a 400 kilometers long – and at the moment still undecided depth – ‘safe zone’, on the Syrian side of the border, East of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, in violation of international law and Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Erdogan’s insistence on having Turkish boots in the zone, in Syria, is a military occupation. A similar process West of the Euphrates covering the remaining segment of the Syrian-Turkish border, according to Erdogan, will eventually complete 800 kilometers long ‘Ottoman Belt’.
Erdogan is determined and impatient to have the zone established and have Turkish boots on the ground. Recently, in a speech in Istanbul, he said “We don’t have much time or patience regarding the security zone which will be established along our complete border, East of the Euphrates, in a few weeks. If our soldiers don’t start actual control of the area, there will not be any option except the implementation of our plans.” Erdogan choosing the zone rather than the wall raises a serious question about Erdogan’s real and ultimate intention and plans. If it is not the wall, it is not security; if it is the zone, it is occupation, similar to the Northern Cyprus precedent.
Erdogan has three objectives regarding the establishment of a safe zone; two declared short range and a third undeclared long range. The first objective is security; the withdrawal of the armed Kurdish groups from the zone, a process which appears to have started. The second objective is resettling the Turkey-based Syrian refugees in the zone. The third and insidious objective is potentially reclaiming Syrian territory which was occupied by the Ottomans for 400 years, until the end of World War I. It should be noted that the 800 kilometers Syrian-Turkish border was based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement and drawn after WWI and the demise of the Ottoman Empire; it is not a historic nor natural border. A substantial part of the border is the Orient Express rail track, built by German Christians to be the border between two antagonistic Muslim states and not to the liking of either.
Erdogan is using a double strategy in dealing with the great powers to implement his three objectives. With Europe, it is blackmail. He either gets European support, or he will facilitate shipping hundreds of thousands of refugees to Europe. With Washington and Moscow, it is ‘the other woman’. I recall the Israeli-Palestinian and the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations in the early 1990s. Whenever the Israelis didn’t get their way in one track, they would hint of reverting to the other track; so is the case with Erdogan vis-a-vis Washington and Moscow.
As for southern Syria, although Netanyahu and Erdogan overtly appear antagonist, they in fact share one common objective which is to squeeze and occupy Syrian territory. In the pursuit of their objectives, both rely on questionable historical claims and power differential between Syria on the one hand and Turkey and Israel on the other. Netanyahu’s annexation of the occupied Golan on the basis of questionable historical claims and Trump’s blessings is not objectionable to Erdogan despite his pretentious public protestations. The Ottomans occupied Syria for 400 years and Netanyahu claims the Golan historically belongs to Israel. Both Turkey and Israel have ‘recovered’ part of what they believe was theirs; Turkey ‘recovered’ Syrian Alexandretta district in 1939 and Israel ‘recovered’ two thirds of the Syrian Golan in the 1967 War and one assumes that both would like to ‘recover’ more.
There is an old Arab proverb: The camel’s nose is in the tent. Turkish tanks and soldiers are in northern Syria; Israeli military and settlements are in the Golan. The ultimate irony is that Syria, the eternal, the cradle of civilization and the home of the three monotheistic religions, has become a prey to the Ottoman and Israeli empires. What a travesty; a treachery. However, take note, Syria is not a pushover, nor is it alone.