U.S. policy clarity and Turkey-Kurd cooperation needed to secure northeast Syria - analysts

The United States must lay out a policy that includes its future troop commitment to ensure security in northeast Syria, as the challenges faced by Syrian Kurds expose it to possible meddling by Turkey, Iran, Islamic State and the Syrian government, said an analysis for U.S. think tank the Atlantic Council. 

Turkey and the United States last week agreed to establish a safe zone in an area of northeast Syria largely governed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey has repeatedly threatened to invade the area as it sees the U.S.-allied SDF, and the predominantly Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) that makes up the bulk of SDF forces, as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought inside Turkey for three decades. 

“The entirety of the SDF project depends on the U.S. security guarantee to protect the border from Turkish military intervention, and from the regime and its allies along the Euphrates River to the south,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Emily Burchfield, an assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs, wrote in a report published this week.

They urged Washington not to completely withdraw troops without assurances from Russia and the Syrian government that they would not forcibly take back territory. “The United States should clearly and publicly lay out its policy in Syria, especially with regard to its future military presence in the country,” said Stein and Burchfield. 

Turkish officials would likely agree. Yahya Bostan, a columnist for pro-government Daily Sabah, said most Turks think the United States was just stalling for time in Syria. “Their scepticism reflects Washington's past acts of deception,” he wrote on Thursday.

Turks remember that Turkey and the United States reached a similar deal last year over patrolling frontlines between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and the SDF near the northern Syrian town of Manbij, “an agreement that Washington promptly violated to keep arming terrorists,” he said.

Turkish news outlet Sol reported on Thursday that the safe zone would be established between Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad, which are currently under SDF/YPG control. YPG forces are to withdraw and concede governance to local military councils, while Turkey and the United States set up a series of observation posts as heavy artillery is pulled out of the area, the website said. 

This plan would likely leave partially Turkish-controlled areas bordering SDF-controlled areas, which could lead to increased tensions. Turkey has already carried out two cross-border offensives into Syria, the second of which saw it and allied Syrian rebels overrun the northwest Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

“Ankara should be encouraged to open dialogue with the SDF, perhaps with the facilitation of the United States,” urged Stein and Burchfield. The dialogue should aim to install a ceasefire along Turkey’s area of control and commit to a set of security guarantees, they said. 

The SDF is facing challenges to increase stability and provide services in the autonomous administration it has declared in northeast Syria. 

“One such challenge is governance in Arab areas such as Deir al-Zor, where the SDF is viewed as an external force led by Kurds and intent on changing social mores and norms,” said Stein and Burchfield. 

As the SDF has expanded its territory, corruption has increased, but Arab inclusion has not. In addition, in several areas the resumption of service delivery has been slow. All of this has increased Arab resentment, according to Stein and Burchfield. 

“If the autonomous administration fails to provide essential services, it will exacerbate tensions already stoked by demographic representation problems, with dangerous implications for radicalisation and unrest,” said Stein and Burchfield.

“Turkey’s security concerns about the SDF mean that it will work to undermine and prevent Kurdish governance,” they said, adding that Iran and the Syrian government might also aim to play a spoiler role for the Kurds. 

Analysts could easily envision worsening security in the area, particularly in Deir al-Zor, according to Stein and Burchfield. Meanwhile, the United States hopes to make a calibrated withdrawal that ensures the lasting defeat of Islamic State and adequate security and stabilisation to ensure the return of refugees. 

“The future of Syria’s northeast is dependent on the U.S. presence, and therefore tied to the policy choices Washington makes,” said Stein and Burchfield. They called on the two major powers involved in Syria, the United States and Russia, to set up a joint mechanism to wind down the conflict. 

“The Syrian war is an epic humanitarian crisis that shows little sign of ending,” they said. “To try reversing the violence, each side - including the most powerful actors - will have to make concessions.”