Ankara: Turkey plans to create a 5,000-square-kilometre safe zone in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday, deepening its involvement in one of the Middle East’s deadliest conflicts.
Erdogan said Turkey’s offensive inside Syria, which started on August 24 under operation Euphrates Shield, has already cleared “terrorist groups” from an area of about 900 square kilometres. The offensive will extend to the Daesh stronghold of Al Bab, which lies about 30km from the border, he said.
The size of the planned safe zone is about 85 times the size of Manhattan, making the operation one of Turkey’s largest foreign military interventions in modern history. Deepening the offensive will likely escalate its conflict with Daesh militants and Kurdish groups seeking autonomy in northern Syria.
Last month’s incursion started days after a suicide bomber said to be linked to Daesh killed at least 54 people at a wedding in the border city of Gaziantep.
Turkey’s goal “is likely to require the deployment of thousands of Turkish soldiers in Syria for years and increase risks of a possible military confrontation with the Syrian forces”, Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said by telephone on Monday.
Turkey, which hosts about 3 million refugees from Syria’s civil war, has long advocated the establishment of a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border to help contain the human flight and stop deadly rocket attacks by Daesh on Turkish towns. Clearing Daesh from border areas west of the Euphrates river could seal the Turkish frontier and allow allied forces to speed up planning of a major offensive on Raqqa, the capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
Erdogan also said Turkey will not allow Kurdish rebel fighters in Syria to link areas under their control along Turkey’s 911-km-long border with Syria. He criticised Kurdish fighters for not retreating from Manbij after taking it from Daesh.
Erdogan reiterated his call to train and equip pro-Western rebels fighting in Syria and to declare a no-fly zone to protect the safe haven, where he said Turkey can build communities to settle refugees. About 120,000 refugees are already living in camps run by Turkey’s pro-Islamic Humanitarian Aid Foundation, or IHH, just inside the Syrian border.
“We have been planning to build houses and social facilities in a safe zone in northern Syria,” Erdogan said. “It has not happened until now. But I hope we can do so from now on.”