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Syrian safe zone stalemate

Since U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted about setting up a safe zone in northeast Syria in January, discussions have been taking place with the United States serving as a go-between for Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. Yet three months later it’s still unclear what such a safe zone might look like.

U.S. officials are reportedly pressuring the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to accept a limited number of Turkish forces within the proposed safe zone. But it’s unlikely that either the SDF, the main ally in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), or Turkey would ever accept such a plan.

Trump’s Syria envoy, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who is expected to visit the region soon, is supposedly proposing the presence of some Turkish forces in the proposed safe zone.

In March, Ambassador Jeffrey said U.S. officials “are working with Turkey to have a safe zone of some length along the Turkish border where there would be no YPG [People's Protection Units] forces, because Turkey feels very nervous about the YPG and their ties to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party].”

The PKK has led an armed insurgency for self-rule in Turkey since the 1980s and is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Washington does not want “anyone mishandling our SDF partners, some of whom are Kurds,” Jeffrey added, saying the United States is thus working for a solution that satisfied all parties.

Jeffrey has met high-level Turkish officials and with General Mazlum, SDF commander-in-chief, and is well aware that the two sides have different goals.

The SDF wants international forces to protect northeast Syria from Turkey, and possibly Damascus, while Ankara wants to control the zone completely and clear out the YPG, much as it did in Afrin last year.

“The U.S. and Turkey still have opposing positions,” Aaron Stein, Middle East Director for the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), told Ahval. “The U.S. is willing to table proposals to have some Turkish presence in the northeast, and is willing to take that to General Mazlum to get a sign off.”

The general remains opposed to this proposal, so U.S. officials are trying to water it down to make it acceptable, according to Stein. The problem is that Turkish officials want more than a few troops in the safe zone.  “They want to control the zone, and that remains the dividing point.”

Full Turkish control, would force all SDF and YPG forces to move out of Kurdish cities along Turkey's border, is unacceptable to the Syrian Kurds.

“Turkey wants to occupy east of the Euphrates to make SDF give up or get killed or surrender, but SDF will not accept that,” senior SDF official Cemil Mazlum told Ahval in March.

It’s not just Kurds who would oppose such a safe zone.

“There is a lot of opposition to the Turkish safe zone, among Arabs, Syriac Christians, and even Turkmen,”  said Amy Austin Holmes, fellow of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, who recently visited Syria. “I believe if there was more awareness about the complexity of the situation, it would be very difficult for Turkey to continue to justify what they are planning to do.”

Even so, the SDF might accept a small Turkish force, as long as it's nothing like Afrin.

“This depends on what kind of assurances they get in return from the US and the coalition, and how this connects to local governance, and other aspirations they have for the region,” Melissa Dalton, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The SDF might even accept some Manbij-style joint patrols, according to Stein. “But that doesn't satisfy Turkey, so we are really stuck in hard negotiating positions,” he said.

Safe zone talks are thus likely to drag on for some time. They have proven frustrating thus far, but at least they continue to stave off a potentially brutal conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds.

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

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