Syria 'Safe Zone': 3 Options for Turkey

 Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the UN Headquarters in New York on September 24, 2019. (AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the UN Headquarters in New York on September 24, 2019. (AP)
TT

Syria 'Safe Zone': 3 Options for Turkey

 Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the UN Headquarters in New York on September 24, 2019. (AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the UN Headquarters in New York on September 24, 2019. (AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has renewed his demand to establish a safe zone, devoid of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), 30 kilometers deep into northern Syria.

Erdogan first made his intentions clear in 2013 and then presented a detailed map of his vision before the United Nations in 2019. His plan was rejected by the United States, Europe and Russia. Ankara managed, however, through various exchanges and military incursions to establish pockets of control in the area.

This was achieved through four military operations: Euphrates Shield in Jarablus in northern Aleppo in 2016, Olive Branch in Afrin in Aleppo's countryside in 2018, Peace Spring in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain east of the Euphrates River in late 2019 and Spring Shield in Idlib in spring 2020.

The process also demanded a series of agreements: Ankara, Moscow and Tehran signed an agreement over Idlib in Astana in 2017; Ankara signed a number of understandings with Moscow in 2018 and 2020; Ankara signed an agreement with Washington over the Manbij "roadmap" in 2018 and another one on the Peace Spring region in October 2019.

These deals allowed Turkey to establish its zones of influence that take up around 10 percent of Syria, or roughly twice the size of Lebanon. Turkey, along with Russia and Iran, which control 63 percent of Syria with the regime, is one of the main players in the war-torn country. Added to them are the United States and its allies, who back the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which hold 23 percent of northeastern Syria.

Turkey's incursions in Syria have prevented the Kurds from establishing their own state, similar to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. It partially succeeded in driving out the YPG and PKK from its southern borders and prevented dramatic demographic changes in northern Syria. Ankara, Tehran and Damascus are in agreement over barring the establishment of a Kurdish entity. Syria, Iran and Turkey had in the 1990s also stood against the establishment of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

What has changed?
Erdogan believes that the war on Ukraine has granted Turkey a unique and major negotiations position with Russia, the US and Washington.

Washington supports Sweden and Finland's bid to join NATO and in order for that to succeed, it needs the approval of all members, including Turkey.

Moscow opposes the bid and is banking on Turkey's veto to that end.

Through the series of tradeoffs and understandings in Syria, and Ankara and Moscow's bilateral military, economic and political relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeded in using his special ties with Erdogan in making a main breakthrough in NATO's southern front. Turkey's Incirlik base near the Syrian border lies just dozens of kilometers away from Russia's Hmeimim air base in western Syria.

Days ago, as NATO was preparing to hold a summit in Spain next month, Erdogan raised his tone and threatened to wage a new incursion in northern Syria with the aim of establishing a "safe zone" and driving out the YPG.

Turkish intelligence and allied Syrian factions have been preparing for the new battle. Shelling along the frontlines has also intensified in recent days, namely in the Peace Spring region covering Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ain and the area east of the Euphrates, the areas near Manbij in the Aleppo countryside, and in Tal Rifaat.

Each of these three zones has its own risks should Turkey choose to attack:

- Red zone. The US has deployed its forces, patrols and drones in the area east of the Euphrates to stress that it is there to protect its allies - the SDF - and repel the Turkish army. The US informed Ankara, through its UN ambassador, of its rejection of any military attacks.

Russia, meanwhile, has used the Turkish threats of an offensive to justify reinforcing its strategic deployment near American forces east of the Euphrates.

This has forced Turkey to backtrack somewhat with Erdogan clearly stating that the new offensive would not include the area east of the Euphrates, but it will cover the region west of the river, specifically Manbij and Tal Rifaat.

- Yellow - grey zone, covering west of the Euphrates in Manbij, where an old American-Turkish agreement called for the withdrawal of the YPG and PKK. Washington and Ankara also agreed to deploy joint patrols in the area and form a local council.

The US assurances to the YPG included Manbij and Washington believes that any threat to the Kurdish force will undermine the war against ISIS.

Any Turkish attack in this zone will lead to instability and raise demands in the US Congress for Washington to impose sanctions on Ankara that were imposed after the 2019 offensive.

Erdogan certainly wants to avoid more economic pressure, a year before presidential elections. He may, however, increase pressure in Manbij to reach a new settlement against the YPG.

- Green zone that covers Tal Rifaat, also west of the Euphrates. This area is, in theory, held by Russia, Iran and the Damascus regime. A Turkish incursion here may be easier than the other two zones. All Ankara needs is a green light from Moscow, just as it did for the Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch and Spring Shield operations.

At the time, Russia extracted a price from Turkey in Syria. This time around, Turkey's request for control of Tal Rifaat from Russia will be met with Moscow's demands over Ukraine and Sweden and Finland's NATO bids or perhaps that Ankara normalize ties with Damascus and agree to the deployment of Syrian border guards on the Syrian-Turkish border.

The coming days will reveal Turkey's true intentions: Is it seeking better negotiations conditions ahead of the NATO summit or is Erdogan seeking to impose a new reality on the ground before flying to Spain? Moreover, how will this clash play out with the UN Security Council seeking to extend the cross-border aid deliveries through Turkey before the July 10 deadline?



Egypt... An ‘Alternative Sudan’ for those Fleeing War

A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
TT

Egypt... An ‘Alternative Sudan’ for those Fleeing War

A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)

With the influx of hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese into Egypt over the past months due to the ongoing war in their country, Egypt has turned into an “alternative Sudan” that embraces more than 5.5 million regular and irregular refugees.

“We live in an integrated Sudanese society in Egypt,” Musaab Hamdan, 33, told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Hamdan, a cleaning worker at a private company in the Mohandiseen neighborhood, said that the country was a haven for thousands of displaced people fleeing the war.

The Egyptian government estimates the number of Sudanese at about 5 million out of 9 million refugees on its territory, while President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi describes them as “guests of Egypt.”

The large inflow of Sudanese since the outbreak of the war in their country in 2023 has put pressure on the International Commission for Refugees in Cairo and Alexandria, where about 3,000 refugee applications are received daily. This has increased the number of Sudanese registered with the Commission to 300,000 persons, which represents 52 percent of the total number of refugees registered in Egypt with UNHCR until April.

The Sudanese features and traditional attire are distinctive on the streets of Cairo and Giza, where Sudanese vendors and citizens are now seen practicing business activities that were limited to Egyptians for decades, including driving taxis and small buses in popular neighborhoods. Hamdan said that this reflects the rapid integration of newcomers into everyday life in Egypt.

Mohamed Abdel Majeed, a taxi driver in Giza, speaks the Egyptian dialect so fluently that many locals do not realize he is from Sudan.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he has adapted to driving on Cairo’s streets and now knows the names and locations of stations by heart.

Alternative haven

Social networking sites are monitoring this heavy Sudanese presence in Egypt, as some videos have focused on the idea of an “alternative Sudan in the country.”

Among them was a comment made by a Sudanese influencer who joked about the heavy presence of his countrymen in the Faisal neighborhood in Giza, saying: “If you are Sudanese living abroad and want to see your family and your country. All you have to do is go to Giza, Egypt.”

Tens of thousands of Sudanese fleeing the war in Sudan consider Egypt the “best haven.” Fatima Hassan feared that her daughters would be “raped by armed militias in Sudan,” and decided to enter Egypt irregularly, she told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Extreme heat and thirst exhausted Fatima and her three daughters during a long trip, before she succeeded in reaching Giza to join her sister who had preceded her there several months ago.

Last month, the authorities announced that they have prevented the illegal entry of buses carrying displaced Sudanese. However, Abdullah Qouni - who has lived in the Maadi neighborhood in Cairo for 15 years and helps many newly displaced to find housing or a job opportunity - told Asharq Al-Awsat that around 11 buses from Aswan enter Egypt daily. He added that each irregular migrant pays about $500 to smugglers in exchange for the trip.

Education

One of the most important features of “Alternative Sudan” is the sight of dark-skinned students on their way to dedicated schools. Their number has increased steadily in recent months, forcing the Egyptian authorities to close some of them in order to “legalize the situation.”

Sami Al-Baqir, spokesman for the Sudanese Teachers Syndicate, estimates the number of Sudanese schools in Egypt at about 300 basic and intermediate schools.

The Sudanese embassy in Cairo, which moved its headquarters years ago from Garden City to the Dokki neighborhood, thanked the Egyptian government for its cooperation in making the Sudanese primary certificate exams a success in June, through six educational centers affiliated with the embassy. ​​

On the academic level, Ayman Ashour, the Egyptian Minister of Higher Education, estimated the number of Sudanese students who enrolled in Egyptian universities last year at more than 10,000.

Egyptian sensitivities

With the Sudanese “jilbab” dominating Egyptian streets and neighborhoods, and videos of large Sudanese gatherings in Cairo being circulated on social media, in addition to reports about the expulsion of Egyptian tenants to house displaced Sudanese, concerns have mounted over their presence in the country.

Moreover, news have emerged about some Sudanese families performing circumcision on their daughters in Egypt, prompting activists to call on Egyptian authorities to enforce the law that criminalizes female circumcision.

Egyptian media professionals joined in criticizing the Sudanese presence. Qaswa Al-Khalali expressed “concern” about the presence of refugee clusters in popular areas, considering this matter “extremely dangerous.” Meanwhile, journalist Azza Mostafa warned of “some refugees taking control of entire areas in Cairo,” pointing to bad consequences on Egypt.

Egyptian parliamentarians responded to calls to legalize the status of refugees, including Siham Mostafa, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the House of Representatives. In television statements, she said: “Egypt hosts millions of foreigners and provides them with services at the same prices provided to citizens without any increase, despite the current economic crisis.”

Reducing burdens

Due to the economic crisis, Egypt has called on the international community to support it in “bearing the burdens of refugees.”

Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, after his meeting with the Director-General of the International Organization for Migration, Amy Pope, that the support Egypt receives from the international community was not commensurate with the burdens it bears, especially as the Egyptian economy suffers from the consequences of global crises.

The Egyptian government recently launched a process to count the numbers of refugees residing on its territory, with the aim of calculating the cost of hosting them and determining the financial burdens.

In a statement issued in April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Egypt requested $175.1 million to meet the most urgent needs of Sudanese refugees who have fled to Egypt since mid-April 2023.