Turkey-Syria offensive: What are ‘safe zones’ and do they work?
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Turkey-Syria offensive: What are ‘safe zones’ and do they work?

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Media captionThe BBC’s Martin Patience explains what’s behind Turkey’s offensive in northern SyriaRussian and Turkish troops have begun patrolling what Turkey says is a “safe zone” in north-east Syria. The Turkish plan is designed in part to house Syrian refugees in a secure area along its border with Syria, as well as to keep it free from Kurdish fighters it regards as terrorists.The concept seems simple, in theory. But in practice – as conflicts from Bosnia and Rwanda to Iraq and Sri Lanka have shown – making safe zones work is more difficult.What’s happening in north-east Syria? The abrupt withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria last month opened the way for Turkey to launch an offensive across the border.After days of clashes with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkey agreed to pause for Kurdish fighters to withdraw beyond a range of 30km (18 miles). Under a new set-up agreed between Turkey and Russia (the main power-broker in Syria), the resulting “safe zone” is to be patrolled by Russian and allied Syrian forces on either side of a stretch held by Turkey and Turkish-backed rebels.

US President Donald Trump hailed the deal as a “big success”, while Germany has floated the idea of using UN troops to guard the zone.

However the track record of safe zones, experts say, does not inspire optimism, and there are fears that the Turkish plan puts Kurds at risk of displacement and ethnic cleansing.”You can’t just displace one million people and put them in a no-man’s land,” Ahmed Benchemsi, of the international campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) , says.What is a ‘safe zone’? It is common to hear different terms – “safe areas”, “protected areas”, “humanitarian corridors” and “safe havens” – but they essentially mean the same thing.The main purpose is to protect civilians fleeing from conflict. HRW defines safe zones as “areas designated by agreement of parties to an armed conflict in which military forces will not deploy or carry out attacks”.

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at the UN General Assembly, held up a map of the proposed safe zone

Although they technically differ from “demilitarized zones”, which ban military activity and infrastructure, and “no-fly zones”, which prohibit military aircraft from operating in the area, they often go hand-in-hand.This was the case in Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991, when the US, Britain and France declared two no-fly zones in the north and south. They did so in part to protect the Kurdish minority in the north and civilians in the Shia-dominated, whose uprisings against Saddam Hussein had been brutally crushed.The UN Security Council also has powers to establish safe zones, and has done so in the past in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994. Safe zones sound like a good idea, so what’s the problem? Few would argue that the concept of creating a haven for civilians in a conflict zone is not commendable. In theory, in these “protected” areas, displaced people have better access to food, shelter, medical care and security than anywhere under fire.It is also claimed that safe zones prevent mass migration into neighbouring countries, where they would place strain on infrastructure and fuel political tension. It is also argued that refugees prefer to be placed in a safe zone within their country of origin, where they are familiar with the culture, language and social norms.

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The Turkish Red Crescent camp, pictured here, hosts nearly one million displaced Syrians along the Turkish-Syrian border

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Syrian refugee children play in front of a poster of Turkey’s president at a refugee camp in Kahramanmaras, Turkey

However, a conflict is not fertile
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