Syria safe zone joint operation centre to be fully operational next week – Turkish defence minister

The U.S.-Turkish joint operations centre set up in Turkey’s southeastern Şanlıurfa province to work on a planned safe zone in north and east Syria will begin full operations next week, Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar said on Friday.

Good progress had already been made by the U.S.-Turkish committee, which began work after around 90 U.S. soldiers arrived in Turkey this week, Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Akar as saying.

The officers hope to come to an agreement on a safe zone that will be acceptable both to Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish autonomous administrations governing the north and east of Syria.

Ankara views these administrations and their armed wings as a threat due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought Turkish security forces for Kurdish self-rule since the 1980s.

Both Turkey and the United States list the PKK as a terrorist organisation. But the PKK-linked Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and other Kurdish-dominated groups in northern Syria have played an important role in the U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State, and U.S. lawmakers wish to prevent a conflict between their NATO allies and the groups they have armed and deployed alongside in Syria.

The agreement to form the joint operations centre was announced by both sides earlier this month, negating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threat of an imminent military operation against the groups south of Turkey’s border.

But there is still much work to be done to reach an agreement, since Turkey’s demands for a 30 to 40 km safe zone far exceed an offer the Kurdish side would accept.

However, Akar said, the American and Turkish negotiators had agreed that the safe zone would be cleared of the YPG and similar groups, and that fortifications built by the Syrian Kurdish forces would be destroyed.

The defence minister said the two sides had agreed on a specific set of deadlines for the joint operation centre’s work, and that Turkey would be closely monitoring this to ensure that it is followed.

A previous agreement signed by Ankara and Washington last year to clear Syrian Kurdish forces from the north Syrian town of Manbij has failed to live up to the Turkish side’s expectations, leading to accusations that the U.S. side has used negotiations to buy time.

If the U.S. side’s actions lead Ankara to believe that it is continuing to support the YPG, or if the safe zone operations do not progress, Akar said Turkey had “B and C plans”, indicating that the Turkish armed forces were still poised to make good on threat to launch a military incursion.

For the time being, technical discussions were ongoing on subjects including the administration of the safe zone, Akar said.

The bilateral talks had already led to agreements on subjects including the use of airspace over the safe zone, he said, adding that Turkish drones had begun flying over the area.