Syrian safe zone negotiations are masterful play by Erdoğan - U.S. scholar

In recent months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made numerous threats to attack the Syrian Kurdish forces across Turkey’s southern border. Yet the Turkish president well knows that an attack would not serve his interests, and has likely used bellicose rhetoric to play Washington, Middle East scholar Steven A. Cook said in an article for Foreign Policy magazine.

The Turkish president has threatened to attack the Syrian Kurdish autonomous regions eight times since January, channelling the widely held outrage in Turkey at the presence of forces on its southern border that are closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed group that has fought Turkish security forces for Kurdish self-rule since the 1980s.

The PKK is designated as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and Washington. Yet the United States has armed and deployed alongside the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a PKK affiliate that has played a crucial role in the U.S.-backed international coalition against the Islamic State.

Despite the Turkish president’s history of making good on his threats in two previous operations against the YPG since 2016, Erdoğan is not likely to attack the Syrian Kurds in the areas east of the Euphrates river, since this would leave Turkey open to costly asymmetric retaliation from Kurdish forces, Cook said.

Rather, the U.S presence alongside the YPG in northern Syria has allowed the Turkish strongman to boost his profile domestically by jousting with Washington, while also drawing the U.S. side into an agreement that works in Turkey’s favour, said the Council on Foreign Relations scholar.

The negotiations over Syria have at the same time drawn the discussion away from Washington’s plans to impose sanctions on Ankara for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, he said.

The talks spurred by Erdoğan’s threats resulted last week in a preliminary “safe zone” agreement that saw the two sides agreeing to create a joint operations centre in Turkey to further plans to create a YPG-free buffer zone on Syria’s border with Turkey.

“The likely effect of this agreement will be to draw the United States further into Syria and in the process render Washington responsible for Turkey’s security. These are commitments that the Turks have been seeking for some time”, Cook said.

“It was an extraordinary achievement for Erdogan. The Turkish leader likely doesn’t play poker, but he probably should”, he said.