U.S. mulls options for proposed Syria safe zone

Since the Trump administration’s surprise December decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, uncertainty has dominated the debate about the proposed safe zone for northern Syria and who will establish and control it. While Russia, Iran, and Syria applauded the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal, Turkey’s initial excitement soon led to suspicion.  

But facing harsh criticism and pressure from inside his own Republican Party and administration, Trump revised his decision and agreed to keep about 400 U.S. troops in Syria. This new plan includes a rather ambitious initiative that might be an answer to the question of who would provide security in the safe zone. The plan calls for a multinational monitoring and observer force supported, ideally, by a coalition of U.S., French, and British military troops.

The two main objectives of the multinational force would be to respond to the reemergence of Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and to ensure the security of U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria—namely, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—by establishing a buffer zone between the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Turkish military.

This new initiative, if realized, is a significant policy change that probably would amend the power balance in the conflict-ravaged region. The change marks a shift away from the idea of "We are leaving Syria!” toward “Let’s be there together!” If all goes as planned, the multinational force would prolong the U.S. military presence in Syria against ISIS while balancing Russian and Iranian influence in the country. If realized, the presence of a multinational force, even with a small number, will have serious ramifications and may act as a counterbalance against the Astana Group’s central position about protecting the territorial integrity of Syria.

To challenge the U.S. initiative, Russia and the Bashar Assad government probably would use the contested Idlib buffer zone as leverage. In fact, Idlib has been under scrutiny by the Russians due to Turkey’s failure and reluctance to assert full control over al-Qaeda-linked jihadis. Russia might use this as a pretext to engage in a military operation in Idlib to pressure Turkey and European countries, as any such operation could trigger another flow of refugees into Turkey and Europe.

As offensive as it might seem, Turkey’s Syria policy has in fact been defensive, and has experienced severe setbacks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy of appeasing Russia while not pushing the United States farther to the edge will work, only to the extent that the realities on the ground satisfy the expectations of both of these two countries. Despite Erdoğan’s repeated assertions that Turkey would form the safe zone by itself, it could not even attempt to do so because neither Russia nor the United States have given Erdoğan the green light, setting aside the issue of the Turkish military’s ability to do it.

While Trump’s call for the creation of a security zone in Syria might be something that Erdoğan would sell domestically, the initiative is a tactical and psychological victory for the Kurds in Syria. The concept of a multinational force is something the Syrian Kurds have been advocating for a long time. Maintaining a military presence and adding a multinational dimension into a force that is dominated by the United States and other European allies would have a real physical presence as well as symbolic significance.

Whether Turkey would be satisfied with the multinational security force hinges on the composition of the force and the role Turkey is allowed to play. Whatever Erdoğan has been doing to stop the Kurds from creating a de facto semi-autonomous or autonomous region in northeast Syria, he seems to be failing. His policies and narratives have elevated the legitimacy of the YPG, providing the United States and other European allies with an excuse to increase their support of the Kurds in Syria. Moreover, Turkey may find itself making concessions to the Kurds in Syria regardless of the slogans Erdoğan might use during rallies in the lead-up to March 31 local elections.

Implementing Trump’s plan for a security zone in Syria, however, will not succeed without the support of the U.S.’ European allies. If NATO allies like France, the United Kingdom, and others agree to be part of the multinational force, it would be a relief for the United States and the Kurds. But if EU countries remain reluctant to contribute to this new initiative, then the United States will have a few options: 1) maintain the military presence and develop a shared U.S.-Turkey security model like that of Manbij; 2) work to convince Turkey to develop a more moderate relationship with the YPG; and 3) hand Turkey full control over the safe zone.  

The last option, which seems highly unlikely, would be a victory for Erdoğan if he could make a deal with both Putin and Assad. The second option seems to be equally challenging given the political climate in Turkey, Ankara’s stance toward the Kurds, and Turkey’s position in Syria. The first option would mean “business as usual” in Syria and require the United States to invest more militarily and politically in Syria, which Trump would not be enthusiastic about.

Whatever plan is chosen, whether it fails or succeeds, one thing is certain: it will add new dimensions to an already complex conflict in Syria.

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