In its latest stunt apparently designed to encourage refugees to believe that Turkey will provide them housing that is nicer than what most people in Turkey have, Turkey has floated the idea of a $27 billion program for taking over part of northeast Syria. Calling this a "safe zone," Turkey says that its security concerns give it a right to occupy part of Syria.
Ankara has talked up the "safe zone" for months, but only now has it floated an ambitious settlement program for 1 million Syrians with modern housing that is the largest of its sort in history. Iran's Press TV, apparently representing the view of Iran's government, argues that the plan means "carving out a patch of land in the Arab country for itself."
Ankara's latest proposal is the building of 200,000 homes for more than 1 million Syrian refugees who currently reside in Turkey. Many of these refugees are from areas such as Aleppo, but Turkey doesn't want to let them move back to areas closer to home, such as near Jarabulus or Idlib Province.
Erdogan's goal is to change a historically Kurdish region into one dominated by non-indigenous Arabs dependent on Turkish support.
Turkey wants to funnel the refugees into an area along the northeastern border of the country where the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces are present. Its goal is to demographically change the area from a historically Kurdish region to one housing Turkish-supported Arab refugees in settlement-style towns, unconnected to the indigenous people and dependent on Turkey for support.
The size of the project would be ambitious for even the most wealthy and powerful countries, which Turkey is not. Yet, Ankara envisions building up to 140 towns, each with 5,000 residents, in ten new "districts."
These towns, according to photos published and pushed by Turkish media and picked up in other media, such as Iran's Press TV and Arab News, will look like the most modern towns, more luxurious than most towns in Turkey. Turkey's government says that its aim is to "settle 2 million Syrians, with the support of the international community, by providing a peace corridor 30 kilometers deep and 480 kilometers long in the first phase."
Acting as if there are no indigenous people in northeast Syria, Turkey plans a settlement program that brushes away the property rights of existing Syrian owners, and seeks to build model villages with 1,000 residences each, including houses, barns, youth centers and two mosques each. Each village will have a sports facility and two schools, with 16 classrooms each. Each house will be 100 square meters, according to the plan published in Hurriyet. This will require 92.6 million square meters of land, according to the article. Another 140 million square meters of agricultural land are needed.
Turkey's settlement program would brush away the property rights of indigenous residents.
Hurriyet refers to this as "the settlements," an indication that Turkey may be seeking to model its policies after Israel's actions in the Golan and West Bank, except expanding them on a more ambitious and rapid scale. Like Israel, Turkey believes that it must take over part of Syria to create a safe zone the way Israel views the Golan. Unlike Israel, it hopes it can move 1 million people into an area of Syria rapidly without any international repercussions and actually get international support to do so.
In Turkey, where there is almost no critical media, it is hard to gauge whether average Turks believe the government should be embarking on one of the most ambitious settlement projects ever constructed, with a long-term commitment to taking over northeast Syria and managing a $27 billion project. One of the benefits of not having a critical press is that governments can float ideas like this without regard to difficult questions about how it might be carried out, perhaps just to distract average people and refugees from the daily realities of their lives. The United States, which has signed on to work on joint patrols in eastern Syria to pave the way for a "safe zone," has no comment on the fact that Turkey envisions a safe zone housing 1 million residents in an area that the US and its partners on the ground will have to be evicted from in order to make room for the new order.
Either way, if Turkey succeeds it will have created one of the most lavish housing projects in the Middle East, with more modern facilities than people enjoy per capita anywhere else in the region, making northeast Syria one of the wealthiest and most well organized centers of the region. Potentially this will mean most Syrians from all over Syria, a country devastated by war where 500,000 have been killed and millions displaced, will all want to flock to the new housing projects. How Turkey will decide who gets to live where amid the flood of applicants will be unclear, raising concerns that instability could result and Syrians struggle to get their 100-meter villas in northeast Syria. Syrians living under Turkish rule in Afrin, Idlib and other areas of eastern Syria may also wonder why they didn't get a multi-billion dollar project for sports facilities and mosques and new schools, potentially causing more protests against Turkey's favoritism towards one area of Syria over another.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.