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

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

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.