U.S. envoy Jeffrey contradicts Turkish safe zone plans in Syria

The U.S. Syria envoy, Ambassador James Jeffrey, appeared before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday to discuss what one congressman called the most complicated policy challenge faced by the United States – navigating the Syrian conflict and the conflicting interests of Washington’s allies.

Jeffrey said talks were continuing over a proposed safe zone that aims to prevent conflict between two of those allies – Turkey and Kurdish forces that have helped in the coalition against the Islamic State. 

However, the ambassador referred to U.S. criteria for the safe zone that appear to contradict Turkish demands, meaning the prospect of negotiations coming to a satisfactory conclusion still appears distant.

The United States is facing a serious predicament in northern Syria, where the committee’s chair, Representative Eliot Engel, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had “made no secret of his desire to expand Turkish control”. 

The congressman referred to repeated threats by the Turkish president to launch a third cross-border military operation into northern Syrian territories controlled by Kurdish-dominated groups including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). 

“Many view it, and I view it, as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the Kurds”, Engel said of Turkey’s opposition to the Syrian Kurdish groups.

Jeffrey responded that Ankara’s security concerns were legitimate, given the SDF’s “traditional and political ties” to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an outlawed group that has been in conflict with the Turkish state since launching a separatist insurrection in 1984. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organisation by both Ankara and Washington. Jeffrey, when asked about the dynamics in northeastern Syria, at one point stated that the PKK has in the past "attempts to overthrow the Turkish government." 

Nevertheless, Jeffrey said, the United States would stand by the SDF in northern Syria despite Trump’s call last December to pull all U.S. troops from the region. This call has since been rowed back, and Jeffrey said it had been misinterpreted by the many who took the U.S. president’s words at face value.

Trump, the ambassador said, had never intended a comprehensive withdrawal, but instead intended to hand over ground operations to allied forces in the coalition against ISIS, and was now committed to leaving a residual force in northern Syria at the request of its allies. Trump has ordered complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria following a phone conversation with Erdogan in December of 2018.

Ankara had pushed the U.S. to cease its support for the Syrian Kurdish groups, and is unlikely to be satisfied with the outcome.

And, though Erdoğan has expressed support for the idea of a safe zone since Trump first floated the idea in a tweet last January, the two countries appear to be no closer to agreeing on how that safe zone will look.

Turkey has insisted it should take control of any safe zone that is created, a notion that Kurdish officials have said they would not agree to under any circumstances.

Jeffrey, meanwhile, told the committee on Wednesday that the United States is pushing for a safe zone where only “local police” would be present – a situation that would anger Turkey if those police are affiliated with the Kurdish dominated local administrations prevalent in the area.