Aug 05 2019

Negotiations with U.S. officials on Syria safe zone to resume on Tuesday, says Turkish defence ministry

Updated


The Turkish Defence Ministry said negotiations with U.S. military officials on the planned establishment of the safe zone in the north of Syria, which began on Monday, would resume on Tuesday at Turkish Ministry of National Defence headquarters in Ankara.

Monday's meeting between Turkish and U.S. military officials in the Turkish capital arrives as the two sides try to hammer an agreement on the establishment of the long-planned safe zone.

The negotiations follow the announcement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday that Turkey would launch a military operation against Kurdish-led autonomous administrations and militias east of the River Euphrates after previous offensives in 2016 and last year.

A Turkish military operation in northeast Syria would be unacceptable and undermine efforts to secure the Turkish-Syrian border and fight against the remnants of Islamic State (ISIS), U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

“We entered Afrin, Jarablus, and Al-Bab. Now we will enter the east of the Euphrates,” the Turkish president said, referring to towns captured in the previous Turkish offensives.

This would be unacceptable for the United States, Ortagus said, urging Turkey to continue working with Washington to resolve the situation.

“We would find any such actions unacceptable and thus urge Turkey once again to work with us on a joint approach,” she said.

The possibility of a Turkish operation has sharply increased since July, when tens of thousands of Turkish troops began massing at the southern border. Statements from the defence and foreign ministers have signalled that Ankara has lost patience with U.S.-Turkish negotiations to prevent a Turkish assault.

Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish groups controlling the area as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the United States.

But U.S. forces have been fighting ISIS alongside these groups, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms part of the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and Washington firmly opposes a Turkish operation against them.

U.S. efforts to prevent a conflict by negotiating a safe zone along the border in northern Syria have stalled due to disagreements over the extent and administration of the safe zone, but Ortagus said the safe zone was still the U.S. administration’s favoured solution.

“We continue intensive discussions with Turkey on a safe zone to address their legitimate security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border. We believe this dialogue is the only way to secure the border area in a sustainable manner,” Ortagus said in an emailed response to questions.

“Any uncoordinated military operations by Turkey will undermine that shared interest. Such unilateral military action into northeast Syria, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, while our and local Syrian partner’s operations against ISIS holdouts are continuing, is of grave concern,” she said.

Reports from northern Syria describe an upsurge of ISIS activity since tensions flared on the border, with jihadists setting off three bombs in the countryside of the northeastern Al-Hasakah province.

Kurdish commanders have said they are prepared for a Turkish onslaught, but that any battles on the border would draw troops away from the fight against ISIS, risking a resurgence of the extremist jihadist group.

Washington hopes to prevent this with a last-ditch offer that extends the reach of the safe zone to nine miles south of an 87-mile stretch of the border, the Washington Post reported on Sunday.

Turkish officials have so far held out for a 20-mile deep safe zone along a much longer stretch of the border.

Talks on the safe zone began between Turkish defence officials and a visiting U.S. military delegation at 10 a.m. local time (GMT + 2) on Monday morning, Turkey's Ministry of National Defence said in a tweet.

Nevertheless, the possibility of a Turkish operation remains high since compromise appears impossible, said Aaron Stein, the director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Middle East Program.

"The SDF and Turkey are hostile actors, with competing agendas. This is the reality of the situation. A compromise would entail Ankara acquiescing to the American vision for the SDF, which is a step too far for Ankara," Stein said in an op-ed for security analysis site War on the Rocks on Monday.

Stein said a previous agreement over Manbij, another area of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish militias, had proved counterproductive due to diverging interpretations by Washington and Ankara.

This illustrates the difficulty of coming to any agreement on northern Syria, Stein said. The failure of negotiations may “incentivize a small, limited Turkish operation along parts of the border", including Tel Abyad and Kobani, he said.