Syria: Rebels, regime race to secure northern 'safe zone'

Syria: Rebels, regime race to secure northern 'safe zone'
3 min read
23 November, 2015
Analysis: Military developments in northern Syria, most recently rebels' advances against IS in Aleppo with US and Turkish air support, could be first step towards establishing a "safe zone" there.
The US deployed F15 jets to Turkey as a part of its anti-IS campaign [Anadolu]
Not long ago, Turkey proposed establishing a "safe zone" in the area stretching from Jabarlus on the Euphrates, north-east of Aleppo, to the city of Marei in the northern Aleppo countryside.

Under the Turkish proposal, the safe zone would be 100km long and 45km deep inside Syrian territory. It would be controlled by the Syrian opposition and off-limits to regime forces under protection from the anti-IS international coalition.

The plan requires providing sustained US, French and Turkish air cover for Syrian opposition groups - but not a Turkish ground intervention.

The Syrian opposition factions likely to be part of the plan are the Levantine Front, the Turkmen Sultan Murad Battalion and the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham in addition to others that have fought IS in Aleppo.

The new plan diverges from previous efforts to train new Syrian opposition forces, which have failed or collapsed, as happened with Division 30.

However, it does not appear that the safe zone will materialise soon.

Challenges and regime pushback

"There have been no new steps made towards the establishment of a safe zone," Colonel Mohammed al-Ahmad, spokesman for the Levantine Front, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

While advances by rebel groups in the IS-held villages of Dahleh and Harajleh are conducive to creating this safe zone, Ahmad said, "no serious steps have yet been made".

"Yet this does not mean precluding a safe zone soon, especially after Turkey agreed to let the international coalition use the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to strike IS, and the worsening Syrian refugee crisis in Europe," he added.

A safe zone in Syria may reduce the flow of Syrian refugees to Turkey and onwards to Europe.

The influx of Syrian refugees increased after the Syrian regime and its allied militias made gains against rebel groups in southern Aleppo in the past few weeks.

More than 100,000 more Syrians are estimated to have fled the most recent fighting, according to Syrian relief groups.

This is likely to put pressure on Turkey to expedite plans for the safe zone.

A safe zone would achieve two goals for Ankara: Create a safe space for Syrian refugees, and thwart purported plans by the Kurdish People's Protection Units to advance and capture the area on the west bank of the Euphrates.

However, the Syrian regime is not oblivious to these plans.

Regime forces, under Russian air cover, have been able to end the IS siege on the Kuweres air base. Regime forces are now less than 10km from the edges of the area Turkey intends to turn into a safe zone.

In truth, the regime's capture of the military airport will allow it to open new supply lines to support an offensive in the direction of the city of al-Bab, which would place regime forces right inside the zone in question.

If this happens, it will severely complicate plans for a safe zone, if not completely foil them.