Jeffrey has no good news over safe zone for Turkey

The United States has no timetable for the withdrawal of its forces from Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Envoy for Syria, said during a telephone press briefing with reporters on Friday.

The U.S. envoy fielded questions from reporters at the briefing, which mostly focused on the situation in northeastern Syria, where Ankara has discussed the option of creating a safe zone to reduce the threat of conflict after the planned withdrawal.

The idea of a safe zone was put forward as a way to defuse tensions over U.S. support for Kurdish forces in Syria, which Ankara views as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an organisation that has carried out armed struggle for Kurdish self-rule and is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other top Turkish officials have made it clear that they would accept such a safe zone only if it is controlled by Turkish forces.

So far, however, no other actors involved in the Syrian war have endorsed the Turkish proposal.

Jeffrey appeared evasive during the call when it came to details of the safe zone. Responding to a question on the topic, he said:

The President has made clear that he is very concerned about Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. The Turks are afraid that the SDF, our local partner in Northeast Syria which is partially Kurdish and largely commanded by Kurdish individuals, does have ties with the PKK and thus Turkey has legitimate security concerns. The President has pledged, and the rest of us have, to meet these Turkish security concerns. We’re also very concerned, however, that we do not see any mistreatment of the Kurdish population who has risen up with us against Assad, not Assad, against Daesh and to some degree also against Assad. So we’re trying very hard to find a way to meet both these sets of concerns.

Jeffrey ended his response by admitting that the parties have not agreed on a solution with regards to the safe zone, but said he is hopeful one will come.

Jeffrey's statement did not include any details on how many of U.S. troops will withdraw. U.S. President Donald Trump originally declared a full and immediate withdrawal on December 19 following a phone call with Erdoğan, but has since rowed back this plan.

From Jeffrey's words on Friday morning, it appeared that the U.S. military position in Syria has now reverted almost fully to its status prior to Trump's announcement in December.

We’re pulling some of our troops but we’re keeping a contingent on in Northeast Syria, along with coalition partners, along with control of the airspace to continue the fight against Daesh and to ensure that we do not have a destabilizing vacuum in that area that we have fought so hard and our partners fought so hard to clear of Daesh.

When it comes to Manbij, a flashpoint city in northern Syria that has been administered by the Syrian Kurdish forces since 2015, the United States and Turkey have also shown little progress.

Turkey wants the structure of the Manbij Military Council to be changed to completely exclude the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). The YPG makes up the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), main allies in the U.S.-backed coalition's fight against the Islamic State, known in the region as Daesh.

Turkey recognises the YPG as a terrorist organisation and extension of the PKK, but no other country sees the YPG as a terrorist organisation. When asked about the situation, Jeffrey said the Manbij road map is still on course:

Yes, the Manbij road map has moved forward. The road map has certain, and I can only be general here, the road map has certain requirements designed to meet Turkish security concerns, our own security concerns, and ensure that the Manbij region is stable. That’s very important because we’ve seen, and we still see, a very significant Daesh presence in the Manbij area. We lost four Americans recently there. We’ve had a number of attacks on the local security forces. We also see Russian regime and Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements attempting to challenge the borders of the Manbij lines from the south.

The Manbij road map was first created to address Turkish concerns in 2018, during the tenure of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. His successor, Mike Pompeo, has continued the working groups.

Turkey wants the leadership of Syrian Democratic Forces to leave the Manbij Military Council, and to elect a new council that will be made up of locals. Jeffrey repeated the same goals for the Manbij road map, but told reporters U.S. officials face a complicated environment in Manbij.

So it’s a very complex environment. Nonetheless, we have a road map with Turkey that involves the pull-back of certain leadership of the YPG which is the core element of the SDF which Turkey argues with some logic is related to the PKK, and we also have procedures in place to do joint patrols with the Turks in the Manbij area. We have done many of them for the last three months.

In essence, it appears that Turkish demands over the Manbij region, including the entrance of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels' to the city, have been indirectly rebuffed by Western and Russian officials.

At the latest summit between the Russian, Iranian and Turkish presidents in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Rouhani also rejected the Turkish version of the safe zone.

Erdoğan has been unusually quiet about the situation east of the Euphrates river in northern Syria in the run-up to the March 31 local elections in Turkey, after making sustained threats to launch a Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces in the region late last year.

Although he had little to share that would constitute concrete progress, Jeffrey insisted that U.S. efforts with Turkey had moved forward:

So we’ve seen considerable progress in the last three months. Were we slow getting off to a start? Yes, but this is very complicated. We’re talking about, imagine joint Turkish-American combat units in the middle of a combat zone moving across the country. That’s complicated. Changing the leadership of security forces in a very sensitive and dangerous environment, that’s complicated too. But we’re confident that we’re making progress and we’ll make more.

The United States and Turkey have been at odds over many critical issues in Syria, where the two sides are singing markedly different tunes. 

Turkey wants a solely Turkish-controlled safe zone running nearly 450 km from Euphrates to the Iraq border. No other actor supports this.

The United States continues to support Syrian Kurdish forces with logistics and weapons, despite Turkey's objections. 

Both the United States and Turkey's Western allies oppose the notion of Turkey-backed Syrian rebels taking over Manbij. 

The most difficult task in this context is left for officials like Jeffrey, who must keep the situation calm on the ground between Washington and Ankara despite having no good news to offer the Turkish side.

In this, Erdogan's unusual silence over these issues during Turkey's election season might be the biggest help.