Establishing a ‘safe zone’ along Turkey’s southern border with Syria has been a longstanding goal of the Erdogan administration. The plan is inspired by three overriding objectives. First, a safe zone would create space for the repatriation – preferably though not necessarily voluntary – of the millions of Syrian refugees who are currently residing on Turkish soil, and whom are increasingly being viewed as a political liability and economic burden ahead of a critical general election next year. Second, a ground-level presence along the border allows the Erdogan administration to take its longstanding fight against regional Kurdish groups to their home turf, eliminating the ability of Syria- and Turkey-based militias to traverse an otherwise porous border region at will. Third, a Turkish military presence effectively cleaves Syria’s de facto autonomous Kurdish region (‘Rojava’ to the local Kurds) into two, separating the Kurdish-majority Afrin (currently occupied by Turkey) in the west from the heartland in the east and northeast.
Before a wave of Turkish military interventions beginning in 2016, Ankara was facing the very real prospect of a contiguous and de facto independent Kurdish statelet along the entirety of its southern border – a prospect that has haunted Turkish leaders for as long as the modern republic has existed.