A man carries the body of a child at the site of a reported regime air strike on the village of Deir Sharqi on the eastern outskirts of Maaret al-Numan in Syria's northern province of Idlib on Saturday. Photo: Abdullah Hammam/AFP

In Syrian towns near the Turkish border, car bombs keep targeting hospitals, markets and town squares despite the declared ceasefire. Turkey still has plans to resettle millions of Syrian refugees there.

The aim of resettling Syrian refugees in terror-free areas is far from being realized with car bombs destabilizing the whole border strip. It’s also clear that there are a number of actors in Syria who would benefit from a border in turbulence. The question of whether this area can be safe again still remains.

A 32-kilometer-deep safe-zone in northern Syria, extending south from the Turkish border, would put the area under the control of the Turkish military and Turkish-backed Syrian National Army. It would allow civilians fleeing conflict to be safe from attacks, according to Turkish officials. However, during the first month of Turkey’s offensive on to Syrian soil, bomb attacks targeted town centers at the border once every two days. It was a similar situation with the Astana Trio’s de-escalation zones in rebel-held Idlib: that Kremlin-brokered ceasefire also didn’t stop the violence.

Since the beginning of the Turkish incursion, three car bomb attacks have targeted Tal Abyad, an Arab-majority border town where Turkish-backed forces easily seized control in the first two days of Operation Peace Spring. In Qamishli, a town the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) handed over to government troops, two car bombs took lives in the city center.

Around busy markets and hospital buildings, explosions have kept killing people. There are still clashes among the SDF, the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Turkish-backed forces in the outskirts of these towns. And the civilians in the towns have to keep waiting, in fear, occasionally shaken by a blast of a bomb-laden car or motorcycle, losing their relatives or maybe their own lives. Both areas, the towns controlled by Turkish Armed Forces or the SDF-Assad partnership, get hit repeatedly, and no one claims any of the attacks.

Before the offensive, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared at the UN General Assembly that almost 3 million people could be resettled into northeastern Syria. He did not give any details, but the goal was the whole border area with a 32km depth. The Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army, composed of former Free Syrian Army factions as well as some Islamist groups transferred from Idlib, have taken one-third of the target area. It’s said that the offensive has ended earlier than expected, as rocket launchers keep destroying armored vehicles and trucks are bombed by drones.

Fights between Turkish-backed forces and Syrian government or SDF groups have never stopped in the countryside, around the agreed borders. As the Americans have retreated south, Russian “military police” patrol part of the main highway with the Turks, and the other part with Assad’s forces.

Erdogan brokered two separate ceasefires with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US Vice-President Mike Pence, and UN Secretary General António Guterres visited Istanbul to meet the Turkish president. As he received a file containing the details of Turkey’s resettlement project, the secretary general reminded that “a return should be safe and dignified.

Except for promising an idyllic safe haven, Turkey hasn’t said much regarding the ultimate status of the newly captured territory. “Turkey can’t leave Syrian refugees to the mercy of Bashar Assad’s regime and its barrel bombs,” Erdogan said this week. However, in Sochi, Russia, he made a declaration that highlights Syria’s unity and territorial integrity, with Vladimir Putin right next to him.

If the area in question is to be targeted by the Syrian government in the end, having created another pocket full of repatriated Assad opponents among the refugees would be a gift for the dungeons of Assad’s regime. With hospitals and now the refugee camps around Idlib targeted by Russian air strikes on a daily basis, Turkey’s role as a guarantor is seriously undermined.

For Syria’s displaced who now live in Turkey, safety on the other side of the Turkish border doesn’t sound realistic. It’s difficult to be hopeful about another ceasefire brokered by the Russians. For the ones who got stuck between the Russian Air Force and the Turkish border in northern Idlib, it might also be the only alternative. The Turkish Defense Ministry announced that 70 families from Jarablus have already been transferred to Tal Abyad.

Turkey wasn’t able to distance Kurdish SDF units from its border, as the SDF opened the border towns of Kobane and Qamishli to government forces. The pressure made Kurds come to terms with the Assad regime and put an end to the superficial distinctions among the SDF, YPG (People’s Protection Units) and other armed groups affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in northeastern Syria. A different kind of pressure, diplomatic and public reactions after US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal decision, forced Turkey to end its advance after just over a week.

Global reaction in favor of the Kurds was expected, so as the rapprochement between the SDF and the Assad regime transpired, US plans to disrupt the relationship between the two were undermined. Forcing Kurds into this interdependence was counted as a (short-term) gain by Turkey.

All parties in the conflict, near and far, have witnessed how the diplomatic mechanisms for Aleppo and Idlib didn’t work. In terms of constitution-making, even the first draft might take years. Resettling large numbers of displaced Syrians into the new pocket looks like a great bargaining chip for later on. But the Syrian government and its biggest supporter, the Kremlin, keep pointing to the complete reunification of Syria under Assad.

Having opposed Turkey’s incursion before, European Union lawmakers rejected the safe-zone idea, and duly announced that the EU wouldn’t provide any financial aid for it. A UN team is studying Turkey’s resettlement plans and is unlikely give Ankara a green light under the conditions of a “temporary” memorandum signed by Russia and Turkey. It’s clear that town centers and markets won’t be safe from violent, unclaimed attacks. And sending Syrians who already managed to escape from the country back to uncertainty would be a tragic mistake.

Burhan Yuksekkas

Burhan Yuksekkas has worked as a fixer and assistant reporter for international outlets such as the Financial Times, The Times of London, and The Telegraph since 2016. For the past four years, he has also edited more than 20 non-fiction works for Turkish publishing houses as well as translating three books from English to Turkish: Burning Country: Syrians During Revolution and War; Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History; and Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon.

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