Can U.S.-Turkey safe-zone deal avert another war in Syria?

The United States is scrambling to turn Turkey’s safe zone proposal for northeast Syria into reality in order to avert President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threat to launch a military operation to drive out Syrian Kurdish forces.

It is yet to be seen, however, if their agreement on Wednesday will lead to a workable arrangement and stave off what would be a bloody and brutal conflict between Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish force that controls northeast Syria. "If these regional and international efforts are exhausted," a top Syrian Kurdish official warned on Wednesday, "then we will be in a total, grave military confrontation.”

Turkey says the United States has dragged its feet on the establishment of a 32-km (20-mile) deep safe zone, or buffer zone, inside Syria, stretching from the east bank of the River Euphrates to the Iraqi border. The YPG and the broader Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-led anti-Islamic State coalition it established would need to withdraw forces and heavy weapons from the zone.

The U.S. offered a much smaller zone – nine miles deep and 87 miles wide – as a compromise. Turkey rejected it. 

Turkey had repeatedly warned the United States that if it failed to create a buffer zone south of its border that it finds satisfactory, it would launch an attack. Turkey amassed troops and heavy weaponry along the border facing both the Arab-majority city of Tel Abyad and the Kurdish city of Kobane, indicating that any actual incursion would aim to seize these two strategically important urban centres. 

Turkey flexed its military muscles to extract more concessions from Washington on the buffer zone’s size and which military forces would ultimately enforce it. 

The strategy appears to be working. “We witnessed with satisfaction that our partners grew closer to our position,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Wednesday before news of the deal broke. 

The U.S. embassy in Turkey released a statement saying the the two countries would establish “a joint operations centre in Turkey as soon as possible in order to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone together.” The statement also said both sides agreed “that the safe zone shall become a peace corridor, and every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country.” 

The ultimate size of this planned zone is not yet clear.  

“It appears Ankara backed away from its threats of unilateral intervention in northern Syria in return for whatever unspecified measures Washington agreed to rapidly implement,” said Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund. 

“If nothing else, this gives both sides more time to continue arguing over the specifics of a safe zone, which undoubtedly remain contested. If negotiations over the safe zone drag on, Ankara may well renew threats of military action,” he said. “In short, we are likely to see more tensions before we get anywhere close to a ‘peace corridor’.”

If the safe zone does fail to materialise and Turkey attacks the SDF, there is probably little to nothing the United States could do to prevent it. 

“The U.S. doesn’t really have any options, other to get in the way and raise the risk of any operation by introducing uncertainty about whether Ankara could accidentally kill Americans,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “If Ankara accepts that risk, well, shoot, the U.S. is out of options.” 

Stein added that Ankara maintained its desire to control all of a 32-km-deep zone. “I take Erdoğan at his word,” he said. “They have a desire to take it all and they’ll figure out governance later.”

Max Hoffman, associate director of national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress’ Action Fund, argues that Turkey’s vision of a 20-mile deep safe zone controlled by Turkish forces “is completely unworkable and has been from the start.” 

“It would encompass almost all of the SDF-controlled areas, including numerous majority-Kurdish towns and cities,” Hoffman said. “As such, it would represent a complete strategic capitulation by the SDF of the areas they fought and died to liberate from ISIS.” 

If Turkey opts to instead “force the issue through a large-scale military move, the SDF will resist, likely while simultaneously trying to cut a deal with the Assad regime,” Hoffman added.  

“For the U.S., such an eventuality would completely undermine its Syria policy, almost certainly necessitating a full withdrawal from Syria – given that the primary U.S. bases in Syria are in this zone, and the SDF is its primary ground partner,” Hoffman said. 

Hoffman doubted President Donald Trump would mind such an outcome “since he does not care about Syria except to the extent it plays a role in domestic politics and his chances of re-election.” 

For Turkey, on the other hand, this would be a disaster. “Ankara would be left to face off against the Assad regime, the enraged Kurds, Russia, and Iran without any support from the U.S.,” said Hoffman. 

“The Turkish military would struggle to secure such a large zone in the face of likely Kurdish insurgent resistance, probably covertly supported by the regime and the Russians and Iranians,” he said. “There would be further displacement sparked by the fighting, while ISIS would probably take advantage of the chaos to expand their already considerable insurgent campaign.” 

In light of how negative these consequences would be for Turkey, Hoffman reasoned that Erdoğan might be “bluffing to try to get concessions on a more limited buffer zone, refugee resettlement, and/or to minimise the chances of CAATSA sanctions” over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles. 

Erdoğan might be willing to carry out a limited move on Tel Abyad, which would deal a further blow to Kurdish autonomy, weaken the U.S.-SDF relationship, signal to the United States that Turkey means business, and assuage nationalists back home to shore up waning political support, according to Hoffman. 

Professor Joshua Landis, head of the Middle East Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma, believes Turkey has been playing a game of chicken with the U.S.

“Erdoğan discovered in December that when he escalated, threatening invasion, he could get Trump on the phone,” Landis said. “Trump promised him what he wanted – that the U.S. was leaving Syria and would allow Turkey the buffer zone.”

But the problem for the Turkish president then was that National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walked back Trump’s concessions.

“So Erdoğan is retrying the strategy of escalation, hoping to get the attention of Trump,” said Landis, adding that Washington still “believes that it can support the Kurds in Syria and retain Turkey as an ally.”

“Erdoğan wants the U.S. to know that is not true,” he said. “He believes that if forced to decide between Turkey and the YPG, Washington will come to its senses and realise that Turkey is more important.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s leader faces yet another hurdle. “Many in Washington are fed-up with Erdoğan and believe that Turkey is lost as an ally,” said Landis. 


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