Turkey re-writes international law with “safe zone” invasion doctrine

Safe zone concept may influence other countries in Middle East, Africa and Asia to demand Ankara-style safe zones in neighboring countries.

Turkish soldiers walk together during a joint U.S.-Turkey patrol, near Tel Abyad, Syria (photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)
Turkish soldiers walk together during a joint U.S.-Turkey patrol, near Tel Abyad, Syria
(photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)
 Turkey has re-written the rules of international law in Syria, declaring that when there is a presence of what it views as a “terrorist organization,” it has a right to invade and create a “safe zone” or “peace corridor” along the border. Other countries including India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Egypt may take note and begin to study Ankara’s doctrine that has wide implications for international affairs.
In international relations, countries generally enjoy a right to self-defense. This is enshrined in various international laws, precedent and treaty law. The UN Charter, for instance, argues in Article 2 that “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Article 51 notes that nothing in the charter “shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense.”
Ankara re-written these norms, arguing that when a country has designated an organization a “terrorist group” that it will have a right to invade the neighboring country and set up a “safe zone” along the border. This doesn’t require Ankara to present any evidence that there was a threat or attacks from northern Syria. Turkey simply took over Jarabulus and Afrin in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Now Turkey says it has a right to take over eastern Syria, redraw property lines and international borders, and settle one million Syrian refugees there, creating hundreds of towns regardless of the local population’s views.
This is a new step in international law, one which has broad implications. Israel’s conquest in 1967 of the West Bank and Golan Heights have generally been seen as illegal under international law. But Israel may now argue it is setting up a “safe zone.” This could also be Israel’s argument for distancing Hezbollah from the Lebanese border.
Wider ramifications mean that India can now argue that it needs a safe zone in Pakistan to keep extremists away from parts of the border of Kashmir. Pakistan may need to take over parts of Afghanistan to create Turkey-style safe zones. Russia can say that its role in eastern Ukraine is a “safe zone” or peace corridor. Saudi Arabia now likely needs a safe zone in Yemen. The number of safe zones that can be created on the Turkish model may be endless. Many porous borders across the Sahel in Africa mean that various countries may need to set up safe zones in the territory of their neighbor.
Turkey has paved the way for a new international legal concept of “safe zone” and “peace corridor.” NATO already appears to accept Turkey’s demand for security as a pretext to take over Afrin. The US has already created a “security mechanism” for Turkey to conduct patrols in eastern Syria because of its “concerns,” giving Turkey the opportunity to demand more. Turkey has already done this in norther Iraq as well. The silence of the international community after Afrin seems to affirm Ankara’s “right to invade” wherever it deems it necessary.
Most countries that have territorial disputes can now look to Ankara as a beacon. Whether in the Balkans or Caucuses, central Asia and beyond, the ‘safe zone’ concept as articulated by Turkey should be seen as a precedent in international forums for the “right to invade.” This concept means self-defense is no-longer a necessary pretext. No longer do countries need to refrain from the “threat” to use force. The US and other countries, in presenting the doctrine of preemption, have already eroded this concept, but now countries may be on the cusp of a new era after almost 75 years of one concept under the UN charter. Of course, Damascus will object that its territory should be partitioned into various “safe zones,” one in the Golan Heights and four more in Idlib, Afrin, Jarabulus and along the northeast border.
A corollary of the “safe zone” concept is also the argument that more powerful states can assert themselves across the borders of less powerful or more unstable states. Once again, this will give more powerful states in places like Africa the ability to exert themselves more forcefully if they can argue there are potential threats across the border of a neighboring state.