Turkey’s Safe Zone in Northern Syria and International Law

All reviews Disciplines International Law International Studies

By Ahmed E Souaiaia*

Abstract: Mere hours before Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visits with his Russian counterpart in Sochi, his government clarified the purpose of its invasion of Northern Syrian. The Turkish government frames its intervention as partly humanitarian, partly security missions. Considering that Erdoğan has called for such a “safe zone” as early as 2015, the political purpose of the “safe zone” can hardly be ignored. More significantly, the legal status of the proposed “safe zone” must be assessed. In this brief note, I examine the Turkish claims and weigh them against legal standards.


Photos: Syrian Kurds throwing stones at departing US troops and waving at incoming Syrian Troops (video screencaptures)

In preparation to his meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government provided an explanation of the authority and purposes of Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria. With no government of any major country in the world providing public, unqualified support to Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring,” Erdoğan places huge premium of this meeting with Putin for a number of reasons.

With US administration withdrawing its troops from northern Syria, Russia is the remaining world power with military and political presence in Syria. Despite its open and unwavering support to the government of Syria, the Russian government, managed to situate itself in a position where it can engage with even the most ardent anti-Assad actors. Turkey, too, tried to find space between the anti- and pro-Assad camps: it continued its support to armed groups fighting the Syrian government, but Turkey also sat down with Russia and Iran to map out a political solution within the framework of Astana and Sochi meetings. With the 150-member committee tasked with rewriting the Syrian constitution starting its work soon, Erdogan wants the security problems that resulted from his embrace of armed groups solved as well. Erdogan’s justification for his continued military intervention in Syria has now come to some clarity and urgency.

Turkey’s Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, summarized his government’s goals as follows:

Our goals are to protect our borders, prevent a terror corridor in northern Syria, put an end to the presence of YPG/PKK, Daesh and all other terrorists in the north of Syria, and to establish a safe zone so as to enable two million displaced Syrians, including Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Ezidis, and Chaldeans, to voluntarily and peacefully return to their lands and homes.

The above statement is meant to provide the authority for and process of carving land in a sovereign country.


  1. The protection of borders is an invocation of the self-defense doctrine that would authorize a country to intervene militarily in another sovereign country without the latter’s consent. If country A’s national security is under imminent threat from country B or from other entities within country B, and country B is unable or unwilling to eliminate the threat to country A, country A has the right to act unilaterally to protect its territorial integrity and national security.
  2. The reference to the “terror corridor” in northern Syria is an invocation of anti-terrorism laws and statements issued by UNSC (or sometime by global powers) to eliminate terrorist entities so designated by the UNSC.
  3. International law calls for assurances that persons and social groups displaced by war and armed conflicts, upon reaching a settlement, are allowed to voluntarily and safely return to their homes.


These are the authorities upon which Turkey is basing its military actions in Syria. The important question is this: does these claims meet any objective test that could determine if Turkey’s actions are justified?

  1. Analysis of data from the last 8 years show no evidence that Kurdish armed groups organized and carried out cross-border attacks against Turkey. The majority of reported attacks within Turkey were claimed by groups connected to al-Qaeda and its derivatives. Moreover, since the start of the armed conflict in Syria, and the formation of the anti-ISIL International Coalition, led by the United States, the referenced corridor was outside the control of the Syrian government. Now, with the US troops leaving northern Syrian, the Syrian government is regaining control over that region. With that being the case, the Syrian government must authorize Turkey’s incursion or Turkey must show that the Kurds are attacking (or have attacked) Turkey from within Syria and must prove that the Syrian government is unable or unwilling to stop such attacks. Thus far, there is no evidence forthcoming from Turkey’s government to this effect.
  2. The referenced corridor has been under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the International Collation. The SDF were armed, trained, and supported by the US and other members of the International Coalition. The SDF has not been designated “terrorist” organization and none of the groups affiliated with the SDF were so designated. Turkey’s government claims that the SDF are connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish military and political organization operating within Turkey and Iraq and fighting for Kurdish peoples’ rights. Turkey failed to prove the connection to extract a “terrorist” designation from the UNSC. Given Turkey’s political history, the connection between the SDF and PKK remains hypothetical, based on the theory that armed Kurds in Syria are connected to armed Kurds in Turkey and Iraq.
  3. Indeed, persons displaced by violence and armed conflicts shall be allowed to return to their homes if they choose to do so once the violence ends and once their safety is assured. It is true that nearly 3.5 million Syrians settled in Turkey. However, there is no credible evidence that would support Turkey’s claim that 2 million of these Syrian displaced persons came from the 444 km-by-32 km zone Turkey wants. Most displaced individuals who ended up in Turkey were affiliated with Sunni Arabs connected to Sunni Arab armed groups from all over Syria, including from southern Syria.


Considering all, not isolated, statements Erdoğan has made since the start of the armed conflict in Syria and considering evidence collected in the last 8 years, it is more likely that Erdoğan’s actions, should he be allowed to occupy Syrian territories, will result in committing war crimes not ending terrorism or preventing war crimes. The so-called “safe zone” will allow Turkey to create a buffer zone, along its borders with Syria, populated by families and relatives of armed groups trained, financed, and supported by the Turkish government. Such actions are in contravention of many international norms and treaties, including the following:

  • Article 49, sixth paragraph, of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV provides: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
  • Under Article 8(2)(b)(viii) of the 1998 ICC Statute, “[t]he transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts.
  • Article 22(2)(b) of the 1991 ILC Draft Code of Crimes against the Peace and Security of Mankind considers “the establishment of settlers in an occupied territory and changes to the demographic composition of an occupied territory” as an “exceptionally serious war crime”

The legitimate concerns of Turkey must be weighed against the legitimate concerns of Syria and other nations in the region within the framework of international humanitarian laws and conventions. Turkey’s security concerns related to its southern border can be addressed within the framework of the 1998 Adana Agreement with the Syrian government. Syrians displaced by the war must be addressed once a political settlement, which must include a truth and reconciliation agreement, is reached through the work of the constitutional committee, facilitated by the UN.

A political solution in Syria is likely to result in a political structure that has a strong central government headed by an executive president (responsible for national security and foreign policy), and a domestic authority headed by an executive prime minister formed by political entities elected to the parliament, and elected regional and mayoral governments insuring decentralized rule over diverse regions and communities. Should this happen, it will then be possible for all displaced persons, including those in Turkey, to return to their homes wherever their homes are, not to a “safe zone” created by displacing others from their homes. The safety of the returnees will then be assured by the regional and mayoral governments in every region and in every town and city, not just by the central government.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, History, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.