ANKARA: As Ankara presses Washington to establish a safe zone in northeastern Syria by the end of September, the Turkish presidency unveiled on Friday the details of a safe zone rebuilding project. While the plan is praised by some experts as a move to create decent conditions for the voluntary return of Syrian refugees, others consider it an attempt of Syrian demographic engineering.
With the project, Turkey targets the return of 1 million Syrian refugees who are currently hosted in Turkish territories. Turkey will hope to build some 200,000 residential buildings as well as police, hospital, government and school facilities. About 140 villages with an estimated 5,000 inhabitants as well as 10 districts hosting about 30,000 residents will be constructed.
In each village, there will be 1,000 houses, two mosques, two schools with 16 classrooms, a youth center and a sports facility. Each household will be provided with an acre of field to conduct agricultural works. The cost of the project is expected to be around $25.9 billion. In the meantime, Turkish F-16 jets were carrying out flights east of the Euphrates over Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve against Daesh — seen by some experts as a show of determination by the Turkish military in initiating its plans in the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly signaled since early September that if the safe zone in the northern part of Syria is not initiated, Turkey may launch a unilateral operation into Syria to take back border areas from the US-allied Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a threat to its territorial integrity.
According to Yusuf Erim, an Istanbul-based political analyst, refugees cannot be forced to return home, it must be voluntary, and the only way for Syrian refugees to return their homeland voluntarily is to provide them with security and decent conditions.
“This project is not just about building houses, it is about building hope,” he told Arab News. “With residences, health, education, government and law enforcement buildings, this project checks off all the boxes needed for strong governance. It will bring a much needed normalization to the region and support the political solution process. Governance and normalization are the strongest weapons in preventing a Daesh revival,” he added. Erim said the unveiling of the safe zone rebuilding project also has a political meaning: “It is definitely a signal to Washington saying ‘either get on board or get out of the way.’ Turkey wants stability and security on its borders and Ankara has made it very clear that it will not tolerate any more delays.”
However, Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, does not think that the safe zone plan is a serious proposal.
“Erdogan is hiding the fact that this safe zone scheme would require the mass displacement of people already present in northern and eastern Syria,” he told Arab News.
“There are approximately 5 million people in northern and eastern Syria, with at least a million people displaced from other areas of Syria. There are already significant needs for the people already present in northern and eastern Syria that need to be addressed, never mind adding another million refugees.” Ankara’s plan has been criticized by some experts over the concerns that it could bring about a demographic change to these areas. For Heras, the Turkish proposal to establish a safe zone is a “Trojan horse to embark on a project of demographic engineering at the expense of the Kurdish population of northern and eastern Syria.”
The long-awaited meeting between Erdogan and US President Donald Trump in New York this week did not take place.
Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said that after failing to secure a meeting with Trump, Erdogan is increasing the pressure on the US administration.
“A unilateral incursion by Ankara will most probably backfire and damage both US and Turkish interests. If Turkey needs the international community to fund this ambitious plan, it will need to have a rather inclusive approach, unilaterally forcing a demographic shift will not necessarily secure and stabilize the Turkish-Syrian border,” he told Arab News.
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