US-backed SDF says it will help set up north Syria safe zone

An unidentified member of security forces at the scene of a suicide attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. (AFP)
Updated 17 January 2019

US-backed SDF says it will help set up north Syria safe zone

  • Daesh-claimed suicide attack kills scores including US forces in the north
  • Senior Kurdish political leader Aldar Khalil said any Turkish deployment in Kurdish-held areas was “unacceptable"

BEIRUT/QAMISHLI, Lebanon: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Wednesday it was ready to help create a safe zone suggested by US President Donald Trump in its region across north and east Syria.

Meanwhile, a bomb attack claimed by Daesh killed US troops in northern Syria on Wednesday, weeks after Trump said group was defeated there. 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said 20 people were killed in the bomb attack, including five US troops. The attack appears to be the deadliest on US forces in Syria since they deployed on the ground there in 2015.

Erdogan said he did not believe the attack in the Syrian town of Manbij would impact Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. 


International guarantees

The SDF, led by the Kurdish YPG militia, said the safe zone must have “international guarantees ... that would prevent foreign intervention,” in an apparent reference to neighboring Turkey. 

The SDF hoped to ensure stability at the border region by reaching agreements with Turkey, which has vowed to crush the YPG.

Trump, who announced he was pulling US troops out of Syria last month, suggested in a tweet on Sunday creating a safe zone without elaborating. The SDF fears the US move to withdraw will give Turkey the opportunity to mount a new assault.

Erdogan said on Tuesday he had discussed a safe zone, which Turkey would set up inside Syria along the length of their border, during a phone call with Trump.

Washington, which has relied heavily on the Kurds in its campaign against Daesh in Syria, has sought guarantees for their safety after President Donald Trump suddenly announced a US troop pullout last month.

Erdogan said he had a “quite positive” telephone conversation with Trump late on Monday in which he reaffirmed that “a 20-mile security zone along the Syrian border... will be set up by us.”


North Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Syrian regime must take control of the north.

“The best and only solution is the transfer of these territories under the control of the Syrian government, and of Syrian security forces and administrative structures,” Lavrov said.

The monitor said it was the first such suicide attack in the city against the US-led coalition fighting Daesh in 10 months.

Almost eight years into Syria’s civil war, Turkey has repeatedly threatened to attack Syrian Kurdish fighters it views as “terrorists” on its southern flank.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would set up a “security zone” in northern Syria following a suggestion by Trump.

The planned buffer would embrace a large swathe of the autonomous region the Kurds have established in northern and northeastern Syria.

Senior Kurdish political leader Aldar Khalil said any Turkish deployment in Kurdish-held areas was “unacceptable.”

He said the Kurds would accept the deployment of UN forces along a separation line between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops to ward off the threatened offensive.

But “other choices are unacceptable as they infringe on the sovereignty of Syria and the sovereignty of our autonomous region,” Khalil told AFP.

Ankara has welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal of some 2,000 US troops from Syria but the future of US-backed Kurdish fighters has poisoned relations between the NATO allies.

On Monday, Erdogan had a telephone conversation with Trump to ease tensions after the US leader threatened to “devastate” the Turkish economy if Ankara attacks Kurdish forces in Syria, and called for a “safe zone.”

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been the key US ally in the fight against Daesh.

They have taken heavy losses in a campaign now nearing its conclusion, with the militants confined to an ever-shrinking enclave of just 15 sq. kms.

The shock announcement of a US withdrawal has sent the Kurds scrambling to seek a new ally in Damascus, which has long rejected Kurdish self-rule.

With military backing from Russia since 2015, Syria’s Bashar Assad government has made huge gains against the militants and opposition fighters, and now controls almost two-thirds of the country.

A northwestern enclave held by militants and pockets held by Turkish troops and their allies remain beyond its reach, along with the much larger Kurdish region.

“Trump wants to implement these safe regions through cooperation with Turkey. But any role for Turkey will upset the balance and the region will not be safe,” Khalil said.

The Turkish army has launched two major operations in Syria — in 2016 against Daesh militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters, and in 2018 targeting the Kurds.

The last offensive saw Turkish troops and their Syrian opposition allies overrun the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the northwest, one of several the Kurds had governed since 2012.

Critics have accused Turkish troops and their proxies of military occupation of Syrian sovereign territory.

Ankara has spoken of a YPG-free “security zone” under its control, but it is not clear if Washington has the same details in mind.

Analyst Mutlu Civiroglu said it was not immediately clear what the US president meant by a “safe zone,” or who he thought would patrol it.

Analysts were “waiting for a clarification from Washington to see what the president really meant,” he told AFP.

Syria stuck with Assad for now, says UK minister Jeremy Hunt

Updated 32 min 9 sec ago

Syria stuck with Assad for now, says UK minister Jeremy Hunt

  • Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, said that Assad is likely to remain in his position “for the short-term and possibly longer”
  • Hunt added that the UK has “no plans” to reopen diplomatic relations with Syria

LONDON: Syria has no future under Bashar Assad but is stuck with the president due to Russian support, Britain’s top diplomat has said.
Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, said that Assad is likely to remain in his position “for the short-term and possibly longer,” and called on Moscow to come forward with a solution.
“Assad … is a truly horrific man who has shown that he won’t hesitate to butcher his own people in order to prolong his hold on power. And what future would a country like Syria have with a leader like that?,” Hunt said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
“But the reality is because of Russian support, he is there and he is likely to stay for the short-term and possibly longer. It is for the Russians now to come forward with their solution because they have chosen to intervene in the way they have.”
Hunt said it was “impossible” for Syria to have a bright future with Assad still in power.
“This is a man who mercilessly gassed his own people in the most brutally possible way against all international norms, and the Russians chose to prop him up. So it is for Russia now to show they are going to create peace and stability in Syria,” he said.
Hunt added that the UK has “no plans” to reopen diplomatic relations with Syria.
The British official said the US withdrawal from eastern Syria should not take place in a way that harms “our allies like the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) in Syria who fought very bravely along Western troops for many years.”
Asked about Britain’s role following the US pullout from Syria, Hunt said: “There is no prospect of British troops going in to replace the American troops leaving, but of course we had discussions with the United States on an ongoing basis and when I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago about how we stabilize the situation in Syria.”
Hunt also spoke about the territorial defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq — but cautioned that was not the same as crushing the mindset behind the terror group.
“We have not yet eliminated the cause of the Daesh movement which is so evil and so destructive and there is a lot more work left to do,” he said.
“It is very important that the global coalition does not hang its hat up and say we are done now, because if we do that there is a very good chance that Daesh will be back.”
“There (is) some evidence now in parts of Iraq that (Daesh is) regrouping and regathering strength.”
On Yemen, Hunt underlined the need for a comprehensive solution that would prevent Iran from using the country as a base to destabilize neighboring states.
Asked about his recent participation in the Warsaw Conference on the Middle East, the British foreign secretary said that the meetings went beyond the Iranian role in the region to touch on reshaping alliances in the Middle East.
He added that he attended a “very productive meeting about Yemen,” in the presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir and his UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.
“We spent a long time talking about what is necessary to get peace over the line in Yemen,” he said.
In this regard, Hunt affirmed that a comprehensive settlement in Yemen could only be reached through “a government of national unity in which the Houthis have a stake in which the security of all communities in Yemen is assured, in which Iran is no longer using Yemen as a base to destabilize Yemen’s neighbors, and in which we can end the terrible humanitarian crisis which is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now.”
According to Hunt, the problem lies in how to achieve a final solution and to build trust, in particular the importance of implementing the Stockholm Agreement and withdrawal from the city of Hodeidah “so that we can open up the Red Sea Mills,” where 51,000 tones of UN wheat is stored.
He noted that he held a lengthy discussion with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif about this issue.
According to Hunt, he was told by Zarif that Iran wants to play its part in finding a solution. “We took those commitments at face value but we do now need to see that translated into the Houthis leaving the Port of Hodeideh.”
“All of us know that if that does not happen soon, we are going to see a return to hostilities and that would be an absolute tragedy to the people of Yemen,” Hunt said.
A version of this story was originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat