Safe zone idea was proposed by Syrian Kurds, says SDF commander

The Syrian Kurdish forces in control of areas bordering Turkey in the north and east of Syria were the original proponents of a safe zone in the border regions and have welcomed negotiations on the issue, Mazloum Kobani, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told the SDF-linked Hawar News Agency.

The SDF proposed the safe zone at the beginning of the year, after U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans for a full withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops who had deployed alongside SDF forces in the fight against Islamic State, Kobani said in an interview published on Thursday.

Trump’s announcement spurred Turkish threats to launch a military operation against the Kurdish-led region. Ankara views the SDF and its affiliates as terrorist groups due to their links to Kurdish militant groups that have fought for self-rule in Turkey for decades.

Yet the SDF has not posed any threats to Turkey, and it was the Turkish threat of attack that gave rise to the safe zone proposal, Kobani said.

The proposal promised to clear an area south of the border of Syrian Kurdish forces and heavy weaponry, though U.S. and Turkish negotiators have for months failed to reach an agreement on the size of the zone or on how it will be administered.

These negotiations were carried out with the full knowledge of the Syrian Kurdish side, Kobani said, with the U.S. team led by Washington’s special Syria envoy James Jeffrey delivering the Kurdish side’s views to Turkish negotiators and vice versa.

With thousands of Turkish troops deployed to the Syrian border and the threat of attack reaching a peak over the summer, U.S. mediators stepped up their efforts, hashing out a preliminary safe zone deal last week.

However, the terms of the safe zone are proving a sticking point, with the Turkish side insisting on a far larger area than the Kurdish side is willing to concede.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday the safe zone should extend to a depth of between 30 and 40 km along the full length of the border areas currently held by the Syrian Kurdish forces. Continued delays could force Turkey to act unilaterally, he said.

The safe zone that Kobani said the Syrian Kurds had proposed was much smaller, with a minimum depth of 5 km and a maximum of 14 km in some areas.

But the 14 km depth would only be implemented in areas between the northern Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, where the border would be demarcated by a stream running between the settlements, Kobani said.

The SDF envisages a safe zone administered by local forces after Syrian Kurdish militias have withdrawn, Kobani said.

This is another sticking point for Ankara, which demands a role in administering the areas covered in the safe zone, many of which are populated by a Kurdish majority that could be difficult to distinguish from the SDF and its affiliates.

The territories controlled by the Syrian Kurdish forces are currently administered by local self-governing administrations under an umbrella Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria that is closely linked to the SDF.

The SDF likewise will not accept Turkey’s demands to take control of the airspace over the proposed safe zone, Kobani said.

“There’s no need for this. Turkish reconnaissance planes can already monitor the areas you call the safe zone. But if those planes are able to fly over these areas, they will also be able to see areas further down, and this is a dangerous situation,” said the SDF commander.

As for the third item on last week’s U.S.-Turkish agreement, referring to the return of Syrian refugees to the areas covered in the safe zone, Kobani said Syrians who had fled from territories under SDF control were always welcome to return.

However, he said, any Syrians who had fled the region after fighting in dangerous jihadist groups such as the Islamic State must stand trial on their return, he said.

Kobani said the fact that negotiations were still ongoing was a positive sign, though the heavy deployment of Turkish forces on the border and continued threats from Turkey meant that a military operation could not be ruled out.

“Debate over the details (of the safe zone) continues. The mediated discussions between us and the Turkish state will continue. We reject some of their demands, and in the same way they may not accept some of ours. We can’t know where these discussions will lead,” he said.