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

How long will Turkey stay in Syria?

In recent months, Turkey has made significant investments in areas under its control in northern Syria, launching local employment projects, opening Turkish post offices and even building a new highway linking the Syrian city of Al-Bab to Turkey. These commitments indicate that Ankara seeks a significant role in shaping the future of northern Syria, an area of great strategic importance.

Turkey currently controls a large swathe of territory in northwestern Syria consisting of Al-Bab and the border cities of Jarablus and Azaz, captured from Islamic State (ISIS) in the Euphrates Shield operation it launched in August 2016. It also occupies the enclave of Afrin, situated a little further westward of the Euphrates Shield zone, which it captured from Syrian Kurdish forces in its Olive Branch operation early this year.

Earlier this month, Turkish media highlighted several new projects launched by Ankara. It began training 6,500 more of the proxy militiamen who fight on Turkey’s behalf under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Azaz. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that 260,000 Syrian refugees had successfully resettled there. Turkey also supplied 3.6 million textbooks to Syrian schools and drilled 69 wells to provide water for 432,000 people. A business association head also announced that 4,000 Turkish firms were operating in both the Euphrates Shield zone and Afrin.

State-run Turkish news outlets have a clear motive in extolling Turkey’s more humanitarian endeavours. Nevertheless, such reports demonstrate a clear intention on Ankara’s part to consolidate its sizeable foothold in northern Syria.

“The head is Turkish, the body Syrian,” quipped one Syrian man when describing all the various institutions, ranging from the security and police forces to the local councils that Turkey has established in the areas it controls. ‘Brotherhood has no borders’ is also a slogan inscribed on those Turkish-built institutions in both Turkish and Arabic. While such anecdotal examples may indicate that Turkey seeks to gradually annex these territories, Ankara invariably stresses that it supports preserving Syria’s territorial integrity.

Turkey’s two operations into Syria did fulfil some of its security needs. ISIS no longer has a foothold on Turkey’s border thanks to Euphrates Shield, and Olive Branch fulfilled Ankara’s goal of preventing the Syrian Kurds from taking over all of Syria’s northern border. Remaining in Syria, or at least retaining a sizeable proxy FSA presence there, will help ensure these battlefield victories are not undone.

“Turkish actions in northern Syria are driven by security concerns,” Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Ahval News.

“To enhance its chances there, Turkey supports a military presence by providing limited humanitarian assistance. It is not, however, feasible at the moment to see if such investments will be guaranteed by the main actors in Syria, such as Damascus, or whether they will result in pro-Turkish sentiments in the long-run.”

The Syrian regime, which has retaken most of the country, has staunchly opposed Turkey’s cross-border incursions since the start of Euphrates Shield. Russia has proven more tolerant of the Turkish military presence, but is unlikely to recognise or acquiesce to any potential Turkish annexation of Syrian territory.

“Turkey is trying to convert its presence into political influence, but Russia so far has clearly signalled to Turkey that the Turkish presence in northern Syria is tolerated due to Turkish security concerns, meaning that no political claims are recognised as legitimate by the Astana agreements,” Akhmetov said.

Akhmetov compared Turkey’s presence in Syria to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to remove the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from the south of the country next to its border. For much of the next 18 years, it controlled a swathe of southern Lebanon alongside a proxy army called the South Lebanon Army (SLA) that, much like the Turkish-backed FSA forces today, it armed and trained to help enforce a buffer zone in that area, before finally withdrawing in 2000.

As with most analogies, there are some important distinctions between this ongoing case and that historic case.

“I’m not sure if the best way to look at it is in terms of legal annexation,” said Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. “These areas have been a direct Turkish sphere of influence, and have been getting more and more integrated into Turkish administration. In many ways, for historical, political and cultural reasons, that goes well beyond what Israel had in southern Lebanon.”

Badran, like Akhmetov, sees Russia as the primary player in determining how long this situation lasts.

“For as long as the status quo between Turkey and Russia persists, and the limitations on the Assad regime’s manpower and capabilities continue to be an obstacle to its territorial ambitions, then I suspect this arrangement is likely to remain in its current, de facto, form,” Badran said.

While the Euphrates Shield zone has proven relatively stable and secure under Turkish control, the same cannot be said about Turkish-occupied Afrin.

“When you look at Afrin today there is no stability or security, it is just chaos,” Mutlu Çiviroğlu, a Kurdish and Syria affairs analyst, told Ahval News.

“Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Human Rights Commission all state that human rights violations, torture, kidnapping and looting are common in today’s Afrin. This was a region which had exemplary stability and was a refuge for many thousands of displaced people. A place where Kurds and Arabs, Muslims and Yezidis and so on coexisted.”

Çiviroğlu said most of Afrin’s residents had been displaced by Turkey’s invasion while Ankara has facilitated the resettlement of many Syrians from across the country there, sparking accusations that it is working to alter Afrin’s Kurdish-majority demographics.

This month, clashes in Afrin between Turkish-backed factions have left at least 25 dead and bode ill for Ankara’s claims to have brought stability to the tiny enclave. “The clashes provoked terror among civilians,” said the head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdul Rahman, who summed them up as “unprecedented since the rebels seized Afrin”.

Çiviroğlu said that since Turkey is the “occupying power” in Afrin it had the responsibility to maintain stability and security, both of which Afrin has been chronically lacking.

“Turkey’s argument of removing terrorists from that region and bringing stability and security rings hollow,” he said, adding that Turkey’s occupation of Afrin is an attempt to “expand the territories under its control to use as a bargaining chip for negotiations so it can have more of a say over Syria’s future.”

Paul Iddon

https://ahvalnews.com/syrian-war/how-long-will-turkey-stay-syria

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