The Safe Zone Agreement in Northern Syria Improves Turkey’s Position

On August 4, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened a military operation against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. His declared objective was to establish control over additional territory in the country where Turkey could create what it calls a “safe zone.” This would be an area between 20 and 35 kilometers along the Syrian-Turkish border to which Syrian refugees in Turkey could return. On August 7, however, and following intensive negotiations between Turkey and the United States, the two sides announced an agreement on this zone, thus blunting the need for the Turkish operation. The United States supports and arms Kurdish soldiers belonging to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that fought the Islamic State (IS) in northeastern Syria. Turkey wants to control the activities of the YPG and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), both of which are ideologically and politically aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—considered by Ankara a terrorist organization.

The threatened operation would not have been the first. Between 2016 and 2018, Turkey launched two other operations, Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, that resulted in clearing areas to the west of the Euphrates River. Those military actions effectively severed the link between the eastern and western parts of Rojava, the Kurdish name for the region extending from Syria’s northwest to the Iraqi border in the east.

Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) asked its research fellows to comment on the positions of the various parties affected by the anticipated establishment of the safe zone. Their views are below.

What worries Erdoǧan as Turkey negotiates for a safe zone on the border with Syria?
Mustafa Gurbuz, Non-resident Fellow, ACW

Turkey’s military operations against the Syrian Kurds are episodes that are part of a long war, but the recent threat to invade the eastern Euphrates region and the ensuing US-Turkey joint declaration of a safe zone should be read in the context of current American-Turkish relations. The safe zone declaration was too broad and vague regarding details; in fact, its overarching aim was to ease tensions on the ground. Erdoǧan is fully aware that the Trump Administration is under extreme pressure from the US Congress and Pentagon to implement sanctions against Turkey following Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

In such precarious conditions, the Turkish government does not trust statements by the White House—given the fact that President Donald Trump frequently changes his mind about Turkey. Ankara still remembers the shocking effect of Trump’s 2018 economic sanctions on the Turkish lira, which contributed to declining popular support for Erdoǧan. If Trump decides to join the chorus in the US Congress and punishes Turkey’s economy in accordance with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the effect would be devastating given the fragile Turkish economy. Perhaps that is why Erdoǧan played the military operation card to force the hands of leaders in the administration and Congress, who will have to choose between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds.

The details of the safe zone will also shape Turkey’s domestic debates about the future of the Syrian refugees. Erdoǧan wants the safe zone so that the Turkish government can establish new small towns for refugee resettlement. Thus far, US officials have been referring to the safe zone as a 5-8 kilometers “peace corridor” without publicly favoring the idea of Syrian resettlement.

How will a safe zone in northern Syria affect current conditions there?
Radwan Ziadeh, Senior Fellow, ACW

It was doubtful that Turkey would actually conduct a military operation against the Kurds in northeastern Syria. Erdoǧan’s announcement was merely a negotiating tactic to improve Turkey’s position in ongoing Turkish-American military negotiations in Ankara. Turkey fully understands the importance of its relationship with the United States and is unlikely to want to add to current tensions in bilateral relations. Thus, reaching an agreement on the safe zone could be seen as an achievement that could serve to preserve those relations. Establishing this zone could also limit the Kurds’ ambition to build an autonomous entity or to work toward increasing political and administrative decentralization. Such ambitions threaten Syria’s unity and territorial integrity in the long term.

Moreover, Turkey will not accept anything less than ending the existence of the YPG––the Syrian version of the PKK––which does not have good relations with the Syrian political or military opposition. The YPG indeed has used deceptive tactics to assert its control in northeastern Syria. At certain points it aligned itself with the Syrian regime when it feared Turkey, built close ties with Russia, and forged strategic relations with the United States (on whose behalf it fought the Islamic State). The aim of both the YPG and PYD has always been to establish a Kurdish autonomous entity in northern Syria despite their knowledge of the Kurds’ demographic disadvantage in the region vis-à-vis the Arab and other populations.

From their perspective, the Kurds are likely to look at the agreement on the safe zone as another attempt to limit their role in northern Syria. Even some in the Syrian national opposition consider the Turkish military presence in any future safe zone as a threat to Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. Nonetheless, the agreement on the zone is a good step at least because the Syrian regime was likely to exploit any Turkish military operation to launch its assault on Idlib province and put it under its total control.

Do you think a safe zone in Syria will affect the PKK in Iraq?
Abdelwahab al-Qassab, Visiting Fellow, ACW

A development affecting Kurds in any country will always have repercussions on Kurds in other countries, including Iraq. Ankara’s military, with its policy of suppressing the PKK in Turkey, pushed its forces to the Qandil Mountains region between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The party had enjoyed its haven there until the defeat of IS in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, when the PKK moved its forces to the Sinjar Mountains that are close to the Iraqi-Syrian border and the Qamishli region. The Qamishli and Hasaka regions in Syria are under the control of the PKK ally, the YPG.

The YPG’s control of the eastern Euphrates area is the source of Turkey’s concerns. From Ankara’s perspective, the presence of the Kurdish fighting force on its southern border region threatens its national security and necessitates quick action to remove this force. The YPG enjoys American support and this complicates the mission of the Turkish military.

Turkey has previously conducted operations against the PKK in Iraq and could always do the same with or without a safe zone agreement with the United States. In fact, it is quite possible for Ankara to initiate such operations without objections from the Iraqi central government or the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkey is likely to continue to attack PKK positions in both the Qandil and Sinjar mountains using its air force. And now, with the safe zone agreement signed for Syria, its operations against the PKK will be more important as its aim will be to protect whatever resettlement camps Turkey builds in the area for Syrian refugees.

What conditions helped to lead to a Turkish-American safe zone agreement?
Imad K. Harb, Director of Research, ACW

The American-Turkish agreement on the safe zone is a welcome step that may lessen tensions in northern Syria. Still, Ankara’s threatened military operation was not enough to completely derail relations with Washington, despite current problems. The most it would cause was some tension to a pillar of American strategic calculations in the Middle East. Friction between the two countries was already present regarding several other important issues. These include Turkey’s decision to buy and deploy the Russian S-400 missile defense system and Washington’s halt to Ankara’s participation in the F-35 weapons program. In addition, the United States has refused to hand over the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of supporting the 2016 coup against Erdoǧan.

As the Trump Administration repeats its intention to withdraw from Syria, an agreement with Turkey may help address Washington’s worry about a military ally through which American officials could influence events on the ground. But what this arrangement would require is an acceptance by the YPG to withdraw from the areas close to the Turkish border so that the safe zone could be established. This will be a tough maneuver by the United States, which still needs the Kurds. At the same time, news is emerging of a resurgence of the Islamic State in parts of IS’s previous caliphate. Thus, this will be a balancing act by American officials who will have to be cautious about not antagonizing the Kurds—their allies on the ground—or Turkey.

That the administration does not have a well-articulated and discernible policy in Syria should not impede its attempt to maintain some influence there. But in the end, no one should forget that in the past, President Trump had no qualms about precipitously withdrawing American troops from Syria, thus leaving the Kurdish forces to fend for themselves. Besides, the administration has practically taken itself out of the Syrian equation and is currently allowing Turkey, Russia, and Iran to devise solutions to end the war that are possible, and agreeable, among them. Finally, by agreeing to the safe zone idea to resettle Syrian refugees, perhaps the United States has given Erdoǧan some help in addressing the anti-refugee nativist sentiments that are agitating Turkey today.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency