The American withdrawal from areas east of the Euphrates in October 2019 was a turning point in the conflict in northeastern Syria. It allowed Turkey to expand into the area, effectively moving its border deeper inside Syria to create a buffer zone with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a heterogeneous alliance of multiethnic armed groups led by the People’s Protection Units, which Turkey sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization it accuses of engaging in terrorist activities.
This expansion has fundamentally altered the nature of Turkey’s border areas with Syria, linking them politically, socially, economically, and in security terms to Turkish provinces just over the frontier. While stopping short of outright annexation, such integration has reshaped the social and economic framework of these regions. It also may lay the groundwork for future, more far-reaching, steps by Ankara in the area.
The U.S. withdrawal was followed by a Turkish military operation known as Peace Spring, which resulted in Turkey’s military taking control over a strip of land between Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad. This established a new border zone, much as Turkey’s Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations had done in other parts of northern Syria. The Peace Spring area is closely connected to Sanliurfa Province in Turkey in terms of administration, services, and trade. However, it is also isolated from surrounding areas inside Syria. The area has strategic importance for Turkey in that it intervened to prevent the emergence there of an entity effectively controlled by the PKK. That is why the expanse between Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad is highly securitized and is not one to which Syrians can easily return today.
Turkish involvement in the area runs deep. Every local council has a coordinator who is affiliated with the province of Sanliurfa. These coordinators help local councils secure the logistical support and funding necessary to carry out service projects. They also help coordinate the delivery of Turkish assistance to local bodies through the Syrian opposition’s interim government. This includes such things as healthcare, property and civil status registration, and education.
The depth of this involvement is illustrated by the fact that when the interim government declared the formation of a local council in Tell Abyad on October 28, 2019, the governor of Sanliurfa, ‘Abdullah Erin, visited the city and expressed his support for the new council. When the local council for Ras al-‘Ayn was formed on November 7, 2019, Erin visited this city as well, stressing that Turkey would continue to rebuild the area and encourage a Syrian refugee return.
In the education sector, the Turks have reopened 146 schools operating in the Ras al-‘Ayn area, enrolling more than 15,000 students. Harran University has also signed a memorandum of understanding to open a branch there soon. Scholarships are given out to a number of students who have achieved high scores on the YÖS Turkish-language exams, especially for universities located in Harran, Mardin, and Hatay.
In another example of what Turkey is doing, last May it allowed 85 combined harvesters to pass through its territory from areas captured in the Euphrates Shield operation to the area of Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad in order to harvest wheat and barley. This was necessary as there is no direct connection between the two areas under Turkish control. According to sources on the ground, the Turkish authorities also granted entry permits to 1,500 farmers during the harvest season so that they could move through Turkey to harvest their land in Syria. After the end of the harvest, transit procedures will be eased in order to move seeds to the Euphrates Shield areas. The Turkish aid groups IHH and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, as well as the Turkish Red Crescent, are also involved in the area, filling the gap left by U.S. and European aid agencies no longer active there.
The Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad area is highly connected to Turkey but has closed its boundaries with the rest of Syria. This has encouraged smuggling. According to people on the ground, building materials are cheaper in the Peace Spring areas, where they are stored. Steel costs $500 per ton in these areas, but $650 per ton in Raqqa, controlled by the SDF. A ton of cement costs $42 in Peace Spring areas and $100 in Raqqa. The opposite is true for fuel products, because SDF-controlled areas produce oil. A barrel of fuel oil costs $37 in Peace Spring areas but just $15 in Raqqa, while gasoline costs $84 per barrel in Peace Spring areas and $40 per barrel in Raqqa.
This indicates that while the area is technically in a border zone with Turkey, it also acts as a border between Turkey and the rest of Syria. The fact that it is closely connected to Turkey yet remains isolated from Syria makes an imminent large-scale refugee return unlikely. Asked about the prospect of refugees returning, a local commander stressed the deficiencies in local infrastructure and the difficulties in procuring sufficient resources. “The electricity, water, and food are just enough for us. We don’t want anyone to come back,” he said.
The idea behind Turkey’s reshaping of Syria’s northern border areas is not to seize these territories for Turkey, but to create a buffer zone with the SDF to absorb the impact of any confrontation with the group. These parts of Syria will likely remain Syrian, but under Ankara’s heavy influence. That said, the situation could create more options for Turkey in the future. But for now, as its administration of these areas has in many ways been successful, Turkey may be encouraged to replicate such a model east of the Euphrates.
This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.