Rojava Revolution: What does the ‘safe zone’ deal mean?

September 24, 2019
A Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) training academy was recently opened in Amûdê , in the province of Qamishlo.

July 19 marked seven years of the Rojava Revolution. In 2012, the newly formed Kurdish self-defence forces took control of the town of Kobanê from the Assad regime’s forces.

Despite all the immense challenges facing it, the revolution has survived. It has provided tremendous inspiration to people around the world. It thus has a global meaning and relevance.

The involvement of women and the relentless efforts to empower them is simply without historical precedent. All genuine people’s revolutions have drawn women into the struggle to some extent, but never like this. In this sense Rojava is a women’s revolution.

The general conditions in northern Syria are very different to those in the West, but the Rojava Revolution shows what women are capable of and what a full-blooded appeal to women can achieve. The military struggle shows this clearly. The YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) is a 25,000-strong female army that has furnished its share of top commanders, dedicated fighters and martyrs to the cause.

Huge cost

But the cost of the long war against the Islamic State (IS) has been horrendous: 11,000 dead and 21,000 wounded. Even allowing for volunteers from Turkey and other countries, this is a huge toll on a population of several million. If Australia suffered proportionately in some conflict, this would equate to tens of thousands dead.

Rojava now has to deal with the medical needs of the thousands of wounded, many of them badly hurt, with limbs missing and severely mutilated. There is also the massive material destruction of the long war. Cities and towns looked like Stalingrad after they were retaken from IS.

Today, the Autonomous Administration is threatened on all sides: by Islamists, the Assad dictatorship and, above all, by the Turkish regime.


Turkey claims it is threatened by Kurdish gains in Rojava. In fact, there is no actual physical threat, but there is indeed the very real “threat” of the inspiring example of radical democracy, women’s empowerment, ethnic and religious inclusivity, and ecological action.

Turkey has long been pushing for a “safe zone” or “buffer zone”. This is clearly aimed at pushing the revolution away from the border region, where most of the towns and cities are, and legitimising a big role for Turkey in the area.

Washington has also been pressuring the Kurds to agree to some form of safe zone. The United States has been negotiating with Turkey, and the Autonomous Administration in Rojava has been telling the US what will and will not be acceptable.

‘Safe zone’ agreement

The recent agreement on implementing a safe zone involves the US, Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and was agreed via the US, not through face-to-face talks with Turkey. Here are the key points regarding the safe zone, according to Wikipedia:

1. A buffer zone would be established in the areas between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (notably excluding the Manbij area) in Northern Syria, in total about 115 kilometres of border between Syria and Turkey.

2. The zone would be five kilometres deep in most areas, but in a few limited areas expanded to nine to 14 kilometres deep. The expanded part of the zone would be located between the towns of Serêkanî and Tell Abyad. The 14 kilometre portion of the zone may be extended by four kilometres in the last stage of implementation of the deal, reaching 18 kilometres at its deepest point and being designated as a “security belt”.

Within the security belt, regular SDF units (including the YPJ and the People's Protection Units, YPG) would be allowed to remain in their positions, but would have to withdraw all heavy weapons.

No hostile actions or acts of aggression would be permitted within the buffer zone.

3. YPG and YPJ forces would withdraw from the 5-9-14 kilometre area of the buffer zone, leaving these areas under the military control of the SDF military councils and the civil control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (the latter of which represents a confirmation of the status quo).

4. Turkish reconnaissance aircraft would be allowed to monitor the zone, but Turkish warplanes would not be allowed to enter and no airstrikes would take place.

5. The SDF would dismantle the border fortifications it has constructed along the Syrian-Turkish border.

6. The US and Turkey would conduct joint military patrols along the buffer zone, but would not occupy territory. Separate Turkish patrols would not be permitted.

7. The joint US-Turkish operations centre would oversee the implementation of the deal and coordinate actions between the two parties.

8. Some of the Syrian refugees currently housed in Turkey would start to be relocated to the areas within the zone.

9. Turkey would refrain from any incursions into Northern Syria.

10. Turkey would not establish any observation posts in Northern Syria, as it had done in Idlib. All observation posts would have to be built on Turkish territory.

11. The SDF later clarified that the majority of the zone would include rural areas and military positions, but would not cover cities and towns.

The British Weekly Worker reported on September 5 that, following the agreement, “Turkish infantry units were withdrawn 5km from the border and heavier weaponry a further 9km”.

Restructuring of the SDF

Along with the safe zone agreement, the SDF is being reorganised.

Twelve military councils have been formed in all the main cities and towns. The military councils will each have delegates to a General Military Assembly and the General Command.

Thirty thousand of the SDF’s 70,000 fighters will be absorbed into the various local military councils. Another 5000 will be organised into special forces and the remaining 30,000 will remain as SDF units.

What does the agreement mean?

In the face of relentless pressure, the Autonomous Administration and the SDF clearly had to agree to something, but the actual deal seems quite reasonable.

They have made concessions, but not bad ones, and the Turkish invasion drive appears to have been blunted. The formation of the local military councils — a sort of territorial militia system — seems like a serious step forward.

Despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s public bluster and rhetoric, it seems clear that — at least for now — there will be no Turkish invasion. In fact, Turkish activity will be severely circumscribed (no independent patrols, no overflights and so on).

The results of the meeting of Turkey’s Higher Military Council in early August seem to bear this out. The promotions, transfers and resignations of top commanders have sidelined or removed the most anti-American officers, that is, those most likely to oppose the current deal.

It is true that the safe zone agreement has a number of ambiguities or unresolved issues. Only time will tell which way these go.

For instance, Turkey wants to settle lots of refugees (it has several million of them) in northern Syria. It wants to get them off its hands and, because they are mainly Arab, dilute the solidly Kurdish presence in a number of areas. Turkey has said that, if the refugees cannot settle in northern Syria, it will unleash them on fortress Europe. We shall have to see what happens.

The safe zone agreement also does not affect Turkey’s blockade of Rojava, or the wall along the border. Within the framework of the agreement, we can assume that Turkey will continue to do everything it can to strangle the revolution.

At some point, if the US feels it needs the Kurds less, it may well accommodate Turkey to the detriment of Rojava. But for now, Turkey is on the leash. Furthermore, the Assad regime will also have to keep its distance.

What will the future bring?

In surviving and prospering for seven years, the people’s revolution in northern Syria has defied the odds and surprised many observers, friendly and hostile alike.

The alliance with the US has confused many people. It is purely tactical and severely limited. Obviously, US imperialism has absolutely no political sympathy with the people’s revolution in Rojava, but it has been vital nonetheless in helping the revolution defeat IS and block both the Turkish and Syrian regimes.

This alliance is the result of Washington’s lack of other options. But it is also due to the strength and stability of the liberation forces, and their extremely realistic and adroit diplomacy. This is based, above all, on the tremendous morale, commitment and mobilisation of the Kurdish people in all parts of their homeland and in the diaspora.

[This is based on a talk given at a public meeting on the Rojava Revolution in Melbourne in September.]

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