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Feb 22 2019

Turkey’s Syria safe zone proposal faces hurdles after Sochi summit

There are two contradictory justifications for setting up safe zones in Syria. One of them was proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump. Five days after he was elected as president, he has told ABC’s David Muir on Jan. 25, 2017: “I’ll absolutely do safe zones in Syria”. 

The justification to set up safe zone was more clearly defined two years later when his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The U.S. will ensure that the Turkish army does not slaughter Kurds.”

Turkey’s concept of safe zone was based on an entirely different philosophy: to prevent the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from threatening Turkey’s security and stability. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, addressing on Jan. 26 a meeting of his party in the eastern province of Erzurum, said: “We need to establish effective control over the field. We expect the promise of our partners to establish a security zone, aimed at protecting our country from terrorists, to be fulfilled in a few months. Otherwise, Turkey will do it alone. My country rejects any alternative proposals.”

One week later, he reiterated this position in an interview with the state broadcaster TRT, saying: “We cannot leave the control of the safe zone to coalition forces (meaning the United States). Its control should be entrusted to Turkey.”

This was Turkey’s position before Erdoğan left for the trilateral summit held with the leaders of Russia and Iran in Sochi on Feb. 14. In Sochi, Erdoğan toned down his rhetoric on the subject, but maintained more or less the core of his approach. 

“The safe zone that is planned should not become an area where the terrorist gang will flourish. I want to be clear that we will not allow a terrorist corridor to emerge along our southern border. On this subject, we are looking forward for the support of our Astana partners,” Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan did not receive the degree of support he expected from the other Astana partners. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said when what he called the illegal presence of U.S. troops came to an end in Syria, logic required that Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity should be protected. 

Ahead of the summit, Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said the same thing in more plain words: “Syrian government consent has to be obtained for setting up of a safe zone in the north the country”. Putin was not less explicit on the same subject. He said: “The main task is to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity. This is valid both for Idlib and the east of Euphrates”. 

After these dissenting voices were raised against Turkey’s position, the joint communiqué reflected a less ambitious target for Turkey. It read: “(The leaders) discussed the situation in the northeast of Syria and, while respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country, decided to cooperate and coordinate their activities for the safety, security and stability of the region, including the cooperation within the framework of the existing agreements.” This text calls for coordination for whatever is going to be done in the northeast of Syria, rather than letting Turkey take unilateral action. 

Another important point in the joint communiqué is the reference to existing agreements. What is meant by this are the Adana Agreement of 1998 and Ankara Agreement of 2010 between Turkey and Syria. The latter was signed immediately before the Syrian crisis broke out. It provided for a framework of cooperation to fight terrorism. Putin mentioned the Adana Agreement in response to a question during the press conference after an earlier bilateral summit with Erdoğan in Moscow on Jan. 23. This reference means that, since there is an already existing framework for cooperation, it has to be utilised. In other words, Ankara and Damascus have to cooperate to fight terrorism. Whether such cooperation is feasible in light of Erdoğan’s continued antagonism against Syrian President Bashar Assad is another question. 

Turkey must have realised that its aspiration to establish a safe zone in Syria is not free from potential hurdles. Nonetheless, this is an arm-twisting exercise and there are several actors in Syria with contradicting agendas. Therefore, the outcome of this exercise remains uncertain.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.