Turkey and US Closer to Syria ‘Safe Zone’ Deal Despite Uncertainty Over Kurds

By James Carstensen | August 14, 2019 | 6:24 PM EDT

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Photo: Turkish Presidency)

(CNSNews.com) – Turkey and the United States have progressed on reaching an agreement for the creation of a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria as the U.S. scales down operations there, although how they will resolve conflicting interests on Kurdish forces remains uncertain.

Turkey’s defense ministry said in a statement Tuesday work was underway on activating a “joint operations center” for the planned safe zone.

The two sides in talks in Ankara last week agreed to create the zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, including the Kurdish-majority region east of the Euphrates River, though few details were given.

The zone is officially aimed at enabling Syrian refugees to return to the country, but concerns have been raised over Turkey’s intent toward the Kurds, especially the U.S.-allied Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) forces in the area. Turkey views them as terrorists.

Last December, President Trump announced plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, but the plans were changed to a scaling down amid signs Turkey was gearing up to attack the Kurdish forces.

In 2018, Turkish forces and Syrian rebel allies attacked YPG forces in the northern city of Afrin, prompting allegations of human rights violations including arbitrary detentions and “enforced disappearances.”

In January, Trump warned Turkey that Washington would "devastate” it economically if it attacked the Kurds after the “long overdue” U.S. withdrawal from Syria.

Erdogan has continued to threaten military intervention, however. On July 26, he pledged Turkey was “determined to shatter the terror corridor east of the Euphrates, no matter how the negotiations with the U.S. conclude.”

In apparent reference to YPG forces, he added, “those who put their trust in foreign powers in the region will be put underground.”

The recent agreement appears to be an attempt to prevent Turkey from proceeding with these plans.

Details remain vague. For example, Turkey’s defense minister said Monday the buffer zone would be 30-40 kilometers (19-25 miles) wide, in sharp contrast to earlier U.S. proposals for something half that size.

A U.S. troop scale down in Syria has also raised concerns of a resurgence of ISIS. A Department of Defense Inspector General report on August 6 warned a partial withdrawal would decrease support for partner forces at a time when they needed training and equipping to respond to resurgent ISIS cells.

Matthew Crosston, program director at the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University, expressed doubts the safe zone plan would work.

“The agreement will not likely be effective because Turkey lately pursues actions that simply put the U.S. at ease while giving it room to continue acting on its own interests without too much scrutiny,” he said. “Most of Turkey, not just the nationalists, will never be truly ‘ok’ with a Kurdish state.”

On concerns over an ISIS resurgence, Crosston said that while the group may “still be capable of creating strife locally,” “as long as that strife cannot extend far beyond the local realm, I think the U.S. would be comfortable with declaring that a ‘non-resurgence.’”

David Romano, professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University, said the agreement may merely prevent a Turkish offensive for now.

“Since they could not come to agreement, the U.S. and Turkey simply announced the establishment of a coordination center to work on the issue – with no details available because they still don’t agree on fundamental issues,” he said.

Romano said the problem remains that Turkey supports jihadist groups in Syria, and the U.S. supports Kurdish groups aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara regards as a terrorist group. (The PKK is also a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.)

Although E.U. leaders have not spoken publicly about the issue, an E.U. spokesperson said diplomatic discussions to find a solution to security concerns at the border with Syria were a “welcome step.”

“The E.U. remains convinced that any sustainable solution requires a genuine political transition in line with [the Dec. 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution] 2254 and the 2012 Geneva Communique negotiated by the Syrian parties,” the spokesperson said by email.

“The E.U. remains committed to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian state.”

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