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The safe zone deal in Syria has wider implications for the region

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) head a convoy of US military vehicles in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017 [Rodi Said / Reuters]
Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) head a convoy of US military vehicles in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria 28 April, 2017 [Rodi Said/Reuters]

Relations between Turkey and the US have worsened in recent years. Of the aggravating factors in the relationship, the US policy towards Syria, in particular its partnership with the PKK-affiliated Kurdish Democratic Union Party (the PYD), has been particularly damaging.

The Syrian crisis has clearly illustrated the gap between the threat perceptions of both Turkey and the US, their alliance structure and geopolitical aspirations. What is hanging in the balance, as a result, is no less than the historical and institutional US-Turkey alliance.

Mindful of this menacing prospect, and in order to prevent the end of their relationship, both have tried to devise ways to address the friction points. The recently declared “safe zone” deal — and the subsequent establishment of the Joint Operation Centre for its management — for north-east Syria is the latest of such schemes. Even so, despite the announcement of the deal, the gap between Ankara and Washington on north-east Syrian and the role of the PYD is yet to be bridged. Although it is a welcome development, the understanding of the deal on each side is very different.

Turkey, for example, demands a terrorist-free zone along its border with Syria. It also wants the Syrian refugees to be settled in this area. The US, however, focuses on what it calls border security for Turkey and wants to prevent the outbreak of any conflict between Turkey and the YPG, which is the armed wing of the PYD. Looking at the public statements of officials in both countries, it seems that Turkey’s demands haven’t been met in earnest. Unless these concerns are addressed, this deal is on shaky ground.

READ: Turkey could set up the zone by itself in northern Syria

The US position on north-east Syria is unambiguous. Statements about the Joint Operation Centre reveal US intentions. During a press conference on 28 August with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, the US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said, “The purpose of the establishment of the centre is to focus on the struggle between ISIS and to limit the uncoordinated potential military activities of Turkey, which will sabotage common interests.” Dunford clarified this point: “There’s two things we’re trying to do. Number one, we’re trying to maintain continuity in our campaign against ISIS in Syria. And number two, we’re trying to address what are legitimate concerns by the Turkish government for the border between Turkey and Syria. So, we’re trying to balance those two ends. We have removed heavy weapons.”

US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford in Washington, US on 28 August 2019 [Yasin Öztürk/Anadolu Agency]

US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford in Washington, US on 28 August 2019 [Yasin Öztürk/Anadolu Agency]

The US General added his belief that “Turkey entering north-east Syria is political rhetoric” and that such a probability “cannot be beneficial in terms of common interest.” During the press conference, he emphasised two other points: The coalition requires the support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight against what is left of ISIS in Syria; and although the US planned to train fifty to sixty thousand local forces in north-east Syria, they have so far only managed to train fifty per cent of these forces.

America’s goals contradict Turkey’s aspirations, particularly when it comes to the SDF. In short, Turkey and the US have very different views regarding the definition of the safe zone and the issue of the SDF. Both are of utmost importance for Turkey. In fact, Turkey has been arguing in favour of the establishment of a safe zone for a long time. Two factors have been particularly crucial: Turkey’s wish to rid its border region of all terrorist organisations and to relocate some of the Syrian refugees residing in Turkey to these areas.

As confirmed previously by official documents from the US government itself, the YPG is part of the transnational structure of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. Today the YPG forms the backbone of the US-supported SDF structures while the PKK, which is the parent organisation of the YPG, is still on the terrorist list of the US, EU and Turkey. As such, Turkey regards the presence of the YPG and the SDF along its borders as major security and terror threats in themselves.

READ: Turkey is ready to take over Syria’s Manbij

Given this picture and judging by the public statements of officials from both countries, the safe zone deal appears to fall short of addressing Turkey’s concerns and aspirations. Instead of a safe zone, the US is effectively going for a buffer zone in a manner that partially tries to alleviate Turkey’s border security concerns, but at the same time accords legitimacy to the security and administrative structures of the PYD, YPG and SDF. However, the legitimisation of the PYD-YPG-SDF is exactly what Turkey is trying to prevent. Such a glaring gap in US-Turkey motivations and aspirations for the deal that has been signed is what puts its future in jeopardy. It is definitely creating dilemmas for Turkey.

On the one hand, Turkey’s chance for an operation to the east of the River Euphrates is significantly limited. On the other hand, the threat of the YPG, which is affiliated closely and shares the same human resources as the PKK, will continue unabated. Moreover, given Turkey’s unpalatable experience with the unimplemented Manbij deal, which it agreed previously with the US to get rid of the presence of the YPG in the city’s administrative and security structure, further aggravates the crisis of the trust in Turkish-American relations. Turkey is suspicious about the intention of the US when it comes to the implementation of whatever deal that it agrees with the Washington.

Daesh flag seen in Syria [File photo]

Daesh flag seen in Syria [File photo]

In a similar vein, according to the latest data, ISIS/Daesh has control over a very small area in the south. This is generating questions about Washington’s real motivation to support the YPG-PYD-SDF, as it’s clear that the previous reasoning, which was premised on these groups’ utility in the fight against ISIS, is no longer applicable. From Turkey’s perspective, the continuation of the US military and political support to the YPG-SDF at this stage is unacceptable, particularly given the fact that the PYD itself has stated that “ISIS has no control over any areas; they are located in a small region controlled by the regime and have no capacity to cause a threat”.

READ: Israel planes struck east Syria, says Hezbollah military media unit

In spite of all these challenges and gaps between the sides, the fact that both chose to speak to each other to find common ground instead of pointing fingers at each other is a positive development. Nevertheless, Turkish-US relations are at a crossroads. It cannot be business as usual for either side. Major decisions are long overdue.

Moreover, is the previous framework of the Turkey-US alliance still applicable? Can both sides address the question of the trust-deficit in the relationship? Do Ankara and Washington have shared threat perceptions vis-a-vis the Middle East?

These and similar questions can be expanded, but what is clear that Turkish-US engagement or disengagement to the east of the Euphrates will have broader repercussions. The deterioration of the relationship, for example, was one of the major factors that motivated Turkey to seek new partnerships with non-western powers, including Russia. However, whether this search will continue to be open to question or a genuine structural repositioning of Turkey in regional and international affairs will be decided very much by the action or inaction of the US government. In this regard, the safe zone discussion between Turkey and the US has implications beyond bilateral ties. Instead, it will be yet another reflection of the systemic transformation and changing power configuration of the current international systems.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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