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US delegation arrives in Turkey to implement Syria safe zone

August 13, 2019 at 12:50 pm

Military vehicles belonging to the Turkish armed forces are being dispatched to border with Syria on 10 September 2018 [Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency]

A US delegation arrived in Turkey yesterday to begin working with the Turkish government to implement the deal struck between them to create a safe zone in northern Syria. The Defence Ministry in Ankara said that six US officials arrived in Şanlıurfa in the south-east of Turkey to start setting up the joint operations centre as part of the deal. The centre is said to be opening “in the coming days.”

The deal agreed by Turkey and the US last week ensures the gradual establishment of a safe zone near the Turkish-Syrian border for Syrian civilians escaping the conflict. Kurdish militias should also be driven further away from the border.

The move was met with anger by the Syrian regime under President Bashar Al-Assad. It called the deal “expansionist” and “aggressive”, and accused Ankara and Washington of violating Syria’s sovereignty. Nevertheless, most sides have been positive about the agreement, as it staved off a Turkish military operation which Ankara threatened to conduct if the negotiations did not lead to a safe zone.

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The Kurds have also agreed to the safe zone’s establishment, following visits by US military commanders to Kurdish territory in north-east Syria and negotiations with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in Turkey over the past few weeks.

Some of the conditions insisted upon by Turkey were opposed by the US, such as the guarantee that the safe zone should be free of Kurdish groups and the US-backed YPG; that it should be thirty to forty kilometres wide, while Washington wanted a limit of between five and fifteen kilometres; and that only Turkish forces should be in control — the US wanted to have control. The disagreements on these points led to the talks stalling frequently over the past month; only the threat of a Turkish military operation forced the US and the Kurds back to the negotiating table.

Throughout the eight-year conflict in Syria, Kurdish groups have taken control of large swathes of territory in the north and east of the country, and were supported and armed by the US from 2017 in order to fight against Daesh. Turkey, however, was firmly opposed to the YPG despite the group’s US support, and has previously conducted two major military operations – Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018 – to clear the Kurdish militias from its border with Syria.

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