ANKARA: President Donald Trump, who last month announced his intention to withdraw US forces from Syria, tweeted on Sunday that the creation of a “safe zone” in the north of the country is on the horizon.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who on Monday spoke on the phone with Trump, said he responded positively to the idea.
“Turkey will continue to do what it has to in order to solve this issue in line with the spirit of its alliance, so long as our rights and laws are respected,” Erdogan told reporters on Tuesday. “We reached a historic understanding with Trump last night.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, met his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar on Tuesday in Ankara.
Dr. Magdalena Kirchner, a senior analyst at Conias Risk Intelligence in Germany, said a safe zone should prevent direct confrontation between the Turkish Army and the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), reduce the YPG’s military presence near the border, and prevent an influx of Daesh and other extremist fighters.
“This would reduce Turkish post-US-withdrawal fears of being confronted at the border by a YPG no longer constrained by the US, or a Daesh no longer targeted by American forces,” she told Arab News.
However, experts say it is unclear how sustainable the zone will be, and whether it can be implemented quickly.
Although technical details have not yet been disclosed, it will cover strategic areas such as Kobani, Tal Abyad, Ras Al-Ayn, Ayn Al-Arab and Qamishli. It is as yet unknown whether Turkish troops will be allowed in the zone. Kirchner said among the challenges is if the YPG refuses to withdraw from strategic towns such as Kobani.
“A safe zone as described is a political win for Turkey, and could give Ankara major leverage over questions such as local governance and refugee returns,” she added.
But “the proximity to local elections in Turkey in March could limit Ankara’s patience regarding such an agreement and trigger military action nevertheless.”
Another challenge will be maintaining the morale and commitment of YPG elements in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to continue fighting Daesh in such a scenario, as the plan for the safe zone threatens the idea of Kurdish autonomy and local governance, Kirchner said. She expects a return to cooperation between Ankara and Damascus against Kurdish autonomy, as a strengthened central government in Syria will seek to regain full control and sovereignty over Syrian territory.
“Border control and containing YPG and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) forces will be a key Turkish demand in any negotiations over a withdrawal of Turkish forces from northern Syria,” she said.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said he is skeptical about how the YPG can be persuaded to withdraw from what it sees as its future autonomous region to areas where there are few Kurds.
“Even if the YPG is persuaded and the plan is implemented, this will mean that the US will need to continue controlling the airspace east of the Euphrates (river) and leave behind a small force to monitor… the safe zone,” he told Arab News.
“The US government is working on a Manbij-like plan — involving joint Turkish-American patrols — which would address Ankara’s concerns and make a Turkish operation east of the Euphrates unnecessary,” Unluhisarcikli added.
Oubai Shahbandar, an Ankara-based defense analyst, told Arab News that a safe zone in northern Syria “will provide a sustainable security solution along Turkey’s sensitive border with Syria,” and “allow commerce and local governance to thrive.”
It would also prevent groups such as Daesh and the PKK from re-establishing a foothold in areas they once controlled, he added.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin recently rejected US claims that Ankara was targeting Kurds in a planned military operation in Syria, saying the aim of such an operation would be to protect Kurds from oppression by terrorist groups.
Shahbandar said although Turkish leaders have pledged to protect the Kurdish community, the YPG has threatened to attack Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) ally if they enter cities controlled by the YPG.