The distant dream of a secure safe zone in northern Syria

On January 13, U.S. President Donald Trump proposed, in an ambiguous tweet, the creation of a 20-mile safe zone in northern Syria.

Almost 10 days later there is still considerable confusion over what exactly it means and how it might be implemented. The Turkish government wants the area cleared of Syrian Kurdish forces, for instance, while Syrian Kurds oppose any Turkish role. And will it be primarily a Turkish venture, or might the United States spearhead its creation?

Ankara’s preferred safe zone is one that is free of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Syrian Kurdish fighters that make up the bulk of the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that with U.S. help have largely defeated Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. The Turkish government says the YPG is as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey since 1984.

“The leaks about the buffer zone are unworkable,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Ahval News. “This is going to be fraught and tenuous.”

“I have a hard time accepting why the SDF would choose the U.S. proposal over the [Syrian] regime alternative, and how Moscow could then blow all this up,” he said, referring to talks the Syrian Kurds began with Damascus following Trump’s Dec. 19 announcement he was pulling the U.S.’ 2,000 troops from Syria. The Kurds hope that by ceding their border regions with Turkey to Damascus they can prevent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threatened offensive.

Syrian Kurdish authorities have affirmed they will support the creation of a buffer zone if established and run by the United Nations or the U.S.-led coalition. But UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the UN had no plans to participate in the creation of such a safe zone.

The Kurds adamantly oppose any Turkish involvement in the safe zone.

“We really need a safe zone, but without Turkish fingers,” Salih Muslim, former co-leader of the political wing of the YPG, told Kurdistan 24. “We want a safe area with an air embargo. There must be no role for Turkey.”

Any safe zone that is 20-miles deep along the northern Syrian border would include all the major Kurdish cities in Syria.

“The problem with the buffer zone is that there is little information on how the U.S. expects to keep Turkey from attacking and destroying the SDF,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “This is the heart of the matter because Turkey’s vision for the buffer zone is for the Turkish military to control the major Kurdish population centres in northeast Syria.”

“A large component of the SDF comes from these Kurdish areas, and it is to be expected that the SDF would fight Turkey, rather than be dismantled by it,” he said. “The buffer zone concept was supposed to achieve a deal between Turkey and the SDF that allows for power sharing in northeast Syria, as a way to prevent disastrous conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. Any plan to allow Turkey to control the Kurdish areas of northeast Syria will force the SDF into conflict with Turkey because the SDF is existentially threatened by Turkey.”

Heras said the SDF was trying to reach an agreement with Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent Turkey seizing land in Syria.

Yaşar Yakış, a Turkish former foreign minister, believes the terms buffer/safe zone are vague.

“A safe zone as it is conceived by Turkey is difficult to set up in northeast Syria. Russia, Iran, the U.S. and many members of the international community will have to be persuaded for it,” Yakış said.

He said Turkey had no means of persuading the SDF to peacefully leave the area.

“However, it may dare to achieve it by using its military power, without persuasion,” Yakış suggested. “If Turkey succeeds in persuading the U.S., Washington has the means to force the YPG to establish a safe zone. But if this is going to be a safe zone with international legitimacy, it has to be sanctioned by a U.N. Security Council resolution, which means that the permanent members of the Security Council – Russia, China, France and the UK – also have to be persuaded.”

Turkey fears the creation of a safe zone similar to the one in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, which led to Iraqi Kurds achieving autonomy, he said.

“This will be considered a nightmare by Turkey, as it is vehemently opposed to the emergence of any type of Kurdish entity in the north of Syria,” Yakış said.

Mutlu Civiroglu, a Syria and Kurdish affairs analyst, said Trump’s tweet suggested a preference for protecting Syrian Kurds before mentioning the 20-mile safe zone.

“It’s not clear what it really means,” he said. “Assuming the buffer zone is something the U.S. is going to initiate to protect Kurds, that would be positive and would be accepted by Kurds and their allies.”

Russia could stymie the creation of such a zone though, Civiroglu said.

“Moscow can certainly undermine not only this safe zone, but also any development in Syria since it has the power,” he said. “Its move will depend on the details. Russia has the power and capability of preventing or shaping the steps taken by Turkey, the Syrian government and any other player.”

Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said the United States had engaged in dual discourse by promising Turkey a safe zone along its southern border on the one hand and promising Syrian Kurds protection from any potential Turkish attack on the other.

“YPG leaders will not retreat in a silent matter,” he said. “The YPG will exploit U.S.-Russia competition to prevent the Turkish safe zone and, in the case of Turkey-Russia agreement, may use its ties with the Assad regime. Thus, it’s a troubling case for Turkey.”

Paul Iddon

https://ahvalnews.com/buffer-zone/distant-dream-secure-safe-zone-northern-syria

Turkey will attack Kurdish fighters in Syria regardless of US withdrawal, foreign minister says

KEY POİNTS
  • Turkey will go ahead with its planned offensive against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria whether or not the U.S. withdraws its troops from the country, its foreign minister said Thursday.
  • The warning comes after American officials attempted to condition a U.S. troop pullout on a guarantee of safety for its Kurdish partners and Turkish non-aggression.
  • Ankara, which views the U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in Syria as terrorists, has already amassed thousands of Turkish troops along its border with Syria.
GI: Turkish FM Cavusoglu 
Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) holds a press conference in Washington, United States on November 20, 2018.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Turkey will go ahead with its planned offensive against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria whether or not the U.S. withdraws its troops from the country, its foreign minister said Thursday.

“If the (withdrawal) is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told local news station NTV, without elaborating on a timeline.

The warning comes after American officials attempted to condition a U.S. troop pullout on a guarantee of safety for its Kurdish partners and Turkish non-aggression — something Turkish President Recep Erdogan promptly smacked down on Tuesday. Now Ankara, which has amassed thousands of Turkish troops along its border with Syria, says it will act regardless of a U.S. delay.

“We are determined on the field and at the table,” Cavusoglu said. “We will decide on its timing and we will not receive permission from anyone.”

White House national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have spent the week in the Middle East trying to reassure allies of America’s commitment in the wake of President Donald Trump’s shock announcement to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria. Security officials and lawmakers have warned this would mean abandoning local partners on the ground and undermining U.S. credibility when it comes to alliances.

The White House and State Department did not respond to requests for comment on Cavusoglu’s statements at the time of publication.

Turkey’s government has long threatened to unilaterally attack the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the U.S.-supported militias controlling large swaths of northern Syria that spearheaded the local fight against the Islamic State. Ankara views the YPG as terrorists and a security threat on its southern border, stressing its ties to a separate Kurdish group that’s carried out a decades-long, violent insurgency against the Turkish state.

The two NATO allies continue to lock horns over the issue of the Kurds, which has proved a massive thorn in U.S.-Turkey relations since the Pentagon began arming and training the Kurds to battle IS in Syria in 2015.

VIDEO09:12
Watch CNBC’s full interview with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Allies in the global anti-IS coalition and in Congress also voiced concern that the campaign against the extremist group was not finished. Trump, defending his decision, stressed that it’s now time for other countries to fill the U.S.’s role, and welcomed Erdogan’s offer to take on the fight against IS — an offer that many critics see as a cover for having free reign to kill YPG members in Syria. Experts also warn that if Turkey attacks the Kurds, they will be forced to abandon the anti-IS fight in order to defend themselves.

For those who have long studied the region, a guarantee of Turkish non-aggression toward the Kurds, as White House officials have suggested, was never going to be feasible.

“The U.S. (or Bolton) attitude is precisely that the YPG should be left alone. This is not a feasible condition, and indeed, its improbability is what makes it attractive to US officials looking to keep the U.S. in Syria,” said Faysal Itani, a Syria expert at the Atlantic Council.

A policy that would ‘invite massacres’

For the Kurds themselves, the crisis may be existential.

“Kurds in Syria that I am constantly in contact with say they want to see action rather than statements because in their view threats from Turkey are very serious,” Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst based in Washington D.C., told CNBC. They point to Turkey’s offensive in the northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin that began in January of last year and drove hundreds of thousands of Kurds to refugee camps.

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“If Trump’s team allows Erdogan to move his forces into northeastern Syria, it would be like inviting the fox to guard the henhouse,” said Nick Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former research associate at the National Defense University. This, he said, would be “a policy that would invite massacres, not the stabilization of post-IS Syria.”

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/10/turkey-will-attack-kurd-fighters-in-syria-regardless-of-us-withdrawal.html

Erdogan, Trump agree to avoid power vacuum in Syria

Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed Sunday to prevent a power vacuum in Syria after U.S. ground forces withdraw, in a phone conversation days after the U.S. president shocked global partners by announcing Americans would leave the war-scarred country.
Turkey was a rare ally that lauded Trump’s momentous decision to pull the 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, where they have been helping assisting in a multinational fight against ISIL.
“The two leaders agreed to ensure coordination between their countries’ military, diplomatic and other officials to avoid a power vacuum which could result following any abuse of the withdrawal and transition phase in Syria,” the Turkish presidency said in a statement.
Hours earlier Trump had tweeted that he and Erdogan “discussed ISIL, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area.” Erdogan tweeted shortly thereafter, saying the two leaders “agreed to increase coordination on many issues including trade relations and the developments in Syria,” dubbing the call “productive.”
U.S. troops will leave under the auspices of a new Pentagon chief set to start next month, after Jim Mattis resigned from the post citing key differences, including on Syria, with the often-impulsive Trump.
An American exit would allow Turkish troops to move against Kurdish fighters in Syria who have played a key role in the war against ISIL but are deemed terrorists by Ankara. Many U.S. politicians and international allies fear the withdrawal is premature and would further destabilize the already devastated region.
A U.S. withdrawal, said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst, will open the way “for Turkey to start its operations against the Kurds, and a bloody war will begin.”
French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday said he “deeply regretted” Trump’s decision, and that “an ally must be reliable.” Several U.S. politicians from both parties rejected Trump’s claim that ISIL had been defeated, and many in the US military expressed alarm and dismay at the thought of suddenly abandoning Washington’s Kurdish partners.
And Trump’s sudden decision sparked turmoil within his administration, prompting the resignation of Mattis as well as of Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition.
Plans for the troop withdrawal will now be overseen by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who Trump on Sunday said would replace Mattis starting January 1.
Source(s): AFP

Winners and Losers in Trump’s Planned Troop Withdrawal From Syria

Kurdish residents of Amuda in northeastern Syria. One holds a flag of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party.
Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

President Trump’s decision this week to withdraw all American troops from Syria within 30 days risks leaving United States’ allies in the long-running war weakened while strengthening rivals backed by Iran and Russia.

American troops entered Syria in 2015 as part of a coalition fighting the Islamic State, which had seized large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. In the three years since, the extremist group’s self-declared caliphate has crumbled. But the continuing lack of stability in both Syria and Iraq could provide fertile ground for the jihadists to retrench.

The American pullout could also weaken the country’s influence over any negotiations on a settlement to end the conflict.

“The leverage that might have been there for the United States in Syria is no longer there because now everyone knows that the United States will leave Syria unconditionally,” said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East director of the International Crisis Group, a conflict and foreign policy research organization.

Here are some of the parties to the conflict that have the most to gain or lose from an American withdrawal.

President Bashar al-Assad and his chief international backers, Russia and Iran, would all benefit from an American troop withdrawal, which would further tighten Mr. Assad’s once-tenuous grip on his battered country.

Iran is one of the biggest winners as the international ally with the most invested in Syria and the most at stake. During the war, Iran embedded itself in Syria, redrawing the strategic map of the Middle East.

It has sent in thousands of Shiite forces, who fought on the ground, and deployed drones and precision weapons to keep Mr. Assad in power. That secured an all-important land bridge through Syria to supply weapons to Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite militia ally in Lebanon and a steadfast enemy of Israel.

Iran trained and equipped Shiite fighters while strengthening ties with allies in Iraq and Lebanon in hopes of building a united front in the event of a new war with Israel.

Russia also stands to benefit. A day after Mr. Trump’s announcement on Wednesday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia applauded the decision, saying during a news conference, “Donald’s right, and I agree with him.”

Credit…Alexander Nemenov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Russia contributed around 5,000 troops and a few dozen aircraft to prop up Mr. Assad’s government, which secured Moscow’s strategically important naval facility in the Syrian city of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea. Russia also expanded its military footprint in Syria during the war.

“It certainly helps the Russians, who have benefited tremendously from a quite limited investment in Syria,” said Jon B. Alterman, director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Through its alliance with Syria, Russia has maintained its influence in the Middle East.

“They re-established themselves as a global player when the conclusion had been that the glory days of the Soviet Union were dead and gone,” Mr. Alterman said.

For Mr. Assad, the American withdrawal means the path forward for Syria will be shaped largely by forces sympathetic to his government and its interests.

The two biggest threats to his leadership have been substantially neutralized — the myriad rebel groups that tried to overthrow the Syrian government and the Islamic State — the latter thanks largely to the military force brought to bear by the American-led international coalition that fought the militants.

Turkey and the United States, NATO allies, have frequently found themselves at odds in Syria, even though both opposed Mr. Assad. That is because the United States backed a mostly Kurdish force in Syria, saying they were the fighters most capable of pushing back the Islamic State.

Turkey has long battled Kurdish separatists at home in the country’s southeast and saw the rising power of Kurds along its border in northern Syria as a threat. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey recently threatened military intervention against the Kurdish forces in Syria that Washington has backed since 2015.

The exit of American troops would leave Turkey open to taking action to curb the power of Kurdish forces in Syria.

Credit…Bulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“We have won against ISIS,” Mr. Trump declared in a video that was published on Wednesday. But experts, including some of Mr. Trump’s own staff and coalition partners, disagree.

Though the militants retain just 1 percent of the territory they held at the height of power, this would remove a major military adversary in the region. During a State Department briefing on Dec. 11, Brett McGurk, Mr. Trump’s special envoy in the fight against the Islamic State, said the battle was not over.

“The end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative,” Mr. McGurk said. “Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished.”

Despite being America’s key allies in the fight against the Islamic State, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are being virtually abandoned, critics of the withdrawal say. The Kurds have relied on American support, and a sudden withdrawal could be disastrous, leaving them exposed from all sides.

The Syrian Democratic Forces denounced the withdrawal in a statement on Thursday.

“The White House’s decision to withdraw from northern and eastern Syria will negatively affect the campaign against terrorism,” the group said. “The fight against terrorism is not over yet, and the final defeat of terrorism has not come yet.”

The group warned that the move would create a “political-military vacuum” that would allow the Islamic State to thrive again.

Kurdish forces are likely to lose territory and control as a result of Mr. Trump’s decision.

“Kurds and their allies have paid a very heavy price,” said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based Kurdish affairs analyst. “They have fought on the front line, and thousands of Kurdish men and women lost their lives fighting on behalf of the entire world.”

He said many now feel betrayed: “They feel like all the efforts are about to go in vain.”

Kurdish fighters who have battled the Islamic State in Syria.
Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

As the Kurds — a stateless and often marginalized group — took back territory from Islamic State forces in northern Syria, they worked to created an autonomous region.

A newly empowered Iran with unfettered land access to their Hezbollah allies — without American forces in the north of Syria as a counterweight — poses an existential threat to Israel.

“Israel will be very unhappy about this because they see it as a net gain for Iran, and they are right,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

As Israel’s most powerful ally, the United States plays an outsize role in security for the country, and the withdrawal of troops could threaten that balance.

Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict in Syria for years, with millions displaced from their homes and millions more who fled the country struggling abroad as refugees.

Aid groups warn that further destabilization of northern Syrian could spark yet another humanitarian disaster in the region.

A paramedic carried an injured child after Syrian and Russian forces struck the rebel-held town of Hamouria.
Credit…Abdulmonam Eassa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The International Rescue Committee, which has been working to provide humanitarian assistance in parts of Syria for years, warned that a potential Turkish offensive in the region could be devastating.

“Throughout this conflict, these political and military decisions have been made without any apparent consideration of the humanitarian consequences. As a result, every decision has heightened the danger and distress for civilians,” said David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee.

Many Kurdish civilians would likely flee the area if the Kurdish militias lose control of northern Syria.

“There will be a humanitarian crisis, there is no question,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

By 

Syria tensions ramp up as Assad eyes Afrin

Political tensions are mounting once again in Syria as Damascus prepared to send troops into Afrin, where the Turkish military has launched a large-scale operation against Kurdish militants, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG).

As news of the possible deal between Damascus and the Kurds broke, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu warned that no one would stop Turkish troops should Syrian forces enter the enclave, in a barely veiled threat of confrontation. Turkey’s main share index fell on the news.

Turkey, the United States and Russia, as well as Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Kurds, are vying for control of northern Syria, ratcheting up tensions in a seven-year war, after the virtual defeat of Islamic State. The area, home to a mixture of Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities, is strategically adjacent to Iraq and Turkey, with important oil resources.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad will enter Afrin in the coming hours after reaching an agreement with Kurdish forces, Syrian state media said. Syria woukd also re-establish a military presence along the border with Turkey, which has actively supported a range of armed groups intent on overthrowing Assad’s government, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), deployed against the Kurds, it said

“If they (the Syrians) are entering to protect the YPG/PKK, nobody can stop the Turkish army,” Çavuşoğlu said at a news conference in Amman, Jordan.

FSA

Militants of the Turkish-backed FSA in Syria

Turkey has rejected any talk of Assad retaking the border, saying his government has courted and supported the Kurds against Turkey.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered Turkish troops into Syria on Jan. 20, saying an operation was needed to cleanse the area of Kurdish militants allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade war for autonomy from Turkey at the cost of about 40,000 lives, most of them Kurdish.

Russia, however, is concerned about possible clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops should Syria’s army be deployed, and has approached Turkey to negotiate a possible deal, according to Timur Akhmetov, a journalist and researcher for the Russian International Affairs Council.

The deployment of Syrian troops would come just three days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara and agreed with Turkey to set up working groups to deal with differences between the two NATO allies over Syria. Washington has opposed the Turkish incursion, saying it threatens to de-stablise Syria further and hurt the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) — the Kurds are the most powerful allies as the West does battle with the group.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is now “pushing the Assad piece forward” after Ankara and Washington reached the agreement to patch up their relationship, Tim Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management in London, said on Monday.

Moscow, which has benefited from a closer relationship with Ankara as ties with the U.S. frayed, could now close Syrian airspace to Turkish jets, leaving Turkish troops exposed on the ground, Ash said.

Turkey has broken international law by occupying Afrin after it realised its support for Islamist terrorists flowing across the border from Turkey failed, Bouthaina Shaaban, an aide to Assad, said on Monday, according to Turkish news website Gazete Duvar.

Mutlu Civiroglu, an expert on Kurdish affairs, said the deal between Damascus and the Kurds isn’t done, though may be signed in the coming hours.

Turkey’s main BIST-100 share index fell 0.2 percent to 116,330 points at 3:04 p.m. in Istanbul, reversing earlier gains.

Mark Bentley

https://ahvalnews.com/syria-turkey/syria-tensions-ramp-assad-eyes-afrin

C-SPAN. C-SPAN3. Turkey’s Response to Islamic Militants

Turkey’s Response to Islamic Militants

hosted a discussion on Turkey’s response to ISIL* militants in the Middle East region and ongoing U.S. strikes against targets in Syria.

“Turkey: ISIS and the Middle East” was a program of Georgetown University’s Institute of Turkish Studies, co-sponsored by the Middle East Institute.

*The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is a militant group that has called itself the Islamic State.

https://www.c-span.org/video/?321686-1/discussion-turkeys-response-isis#