Turkey demands smaller Syria safe zone in US negotiations

A man looks at burning cars after airstrikes hit the northern town of Maaret Al-Numan, as Syrian regime forces continued their military offensive in Idlib province on Thursday. (AP)
Updated 30 August 2019

Turkey demands smaller Syria safe zone in US negotiations

  • Erdogan under intense domestic pressure to ensure national security

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that Turkey would demand a smaller safe zone in Syria.

His comments follow meetings with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Erdogan said: “I told Defense Minister Hulusi Akar that we should begin to work with what (the Americans had proposed). Then we can do what is necessary in the future. The agreement we have reached with the US is a correct step toward establishing a safe zone and removing the YPG from the east of the Euphrates.”

He also warned that “Turkish personnel and armored carriers are all on the border. We are in a position to do everything at any moment.”

Erdogan recently announced that Turkish troops will soon be deployed in the safe zone, and pledged that he would not let the US delay it being established.

In early August, Ankara and Washington agreed to set up a safe zone between the Turkish border and Syrian land controlled by the US-backed YPG militia. They also established a joint operations center, which has reached full operational capacity.  

Joint US-Turkey patrols are also expected to begin soon under the latest deal between the two counties. Akar announced that joint US-Turkey helicopter flights had been launched and destruction of YPG fortifications had started in northern Syria.

US President Donald Trump and Erdogan spoke by phone on Wednesday to discuss trade and the humanitarian situation in Idlib.

Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency said the leaders agreed to cooperate to protect civilians in Idlib after jets believed to be Syrian or Russian struck an opposition-held city in northwest Syria.

According to Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, shortening the safe zone means that Turkey no longer has the upper hand in negotiations with the US.

“Under the current circumstances, Ankara concentrates on getting the maximum gain in Syria’s rebel-held stronghold of Idlib province and the eastern part of the Euphrates. Turkey doesn’t want to pit against the US in this critical region,” he told Arab News.

Orhan added that there are more important dynamics than the depth of the safe zone.

“The role and the responsibilities assigned to Turkish forces, whether they will have an observatory role or not, are of key importance. There would also be other technical details, such as permanent bases or observation points that might be established in the region,” he said.

Orhan said that the depth of safe zone would depend on the population structure and the geographical characteristics of the region.

“It would be deeper along Arab areas like Tal Abyad Ras Al-Ain, and narrower in Kurdish zones,” he said.

FASTFACT

Turkey and US established a joint operations center, which has reached full operational capacity. Joint patrols are also expected to begin soon under the latest deal between the two countries.

According to Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East security analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security, the change in the safe zone depth shows that Ankara understands that there are limits to what it can get from the Americans in northern and eastern Syria.

“Erdogan’s main objective is for Turkish forces to patrol northern and eastern Syria, and the Americans are about to give him that,” he told Arab News. Heras added that Erdogan is under intense domestic political pressure to resolve issues in Syria, and he wants to show that he can ensure Turkey’s national security.

“Turkish forces would participate in patrols with other nations, especially the US. Turkey’s role in northern and eastern Syria would be largely symbolic and intended to satisfy Erdogan,” he said.

Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces continued their military offensive in Idlib, seizing a cluster of villages on the southeastern edges of the province on Thursday as the civilian death toll rose.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops captured three small villages as they continued their assault. It suggested that the next target will be the opposition-held town of Maaret Al-Numan, which lies near the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

Last week, troops seized the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which sits on the highway.

Idlib is the Syrian opposition’s final stronghold. President Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, are determined to recapture it. For now, their main aim is to reopen the M5 highway and they have been pounding towns and villages that lie near that route. Opening the highway would shorten travel times between the country’s two largest cities by two hours.

The Syrian Civil Defense group, which opposes the Assad regime, said airstrikes on Maaret Al-Numan on Wednesday killed 12 people and wounded 34. The group, also known as the White Helmets, released a video showing the rescue operations. In the footage, bodies can be seen trapped in a collapsed building after it was targeted by jets.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, also reported 12 deaths, including two women and six children, and said 30 people were wounded.

The UN said that over 550 civilians had been killed and over 400,000 people displaced from the Hama and Idlib provinces since the offensive began in late April. Almost half of those displaced, some of them multiple times, live in camps and reception centers in the open air or under trees.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that “satellite imagery shows entire towns and villages have been razed to the ground, while dozens of communities have been emptied.”

He called on the warring parties to ensure the safety of civilians as clashes, shelling and airstrikes escalate.

Dujarric added that three-quarters of the 3 million people being impacted by the violence are women and children.


Will European arms ban impact Turkey’s Syria operation?

Updated 14 October 2019

Will European arms ban impact Turkey’s Syria operation?

  • Several European countries imposing weapons embargoes on Turkey

ANKARA: With an increasing number of European countries imposing weapons embargoes on Turkey over its ongoing operation in northeastern Syria, Ankara’s existing inventory of weapons and military capabilities are under the spotlight.

More punitive measures on a wider scale are expected during a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Oct. 17.

It could further strain already deteriorating relations between Ankara and the bloc.

However, a EU-wide arms embargo would require an unanimous decision by all the leaders.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned last week of a possible refugee flow if Turkey “opened the doors” for 3.6 million Syrian refugees to go to Europe — putting into question the clauses of the 2016 migration deal between Ankara and Brussels.

“The impact of EU member states’ arms sanctions on Turkey depends on the level of Turkey’s stockpiles,” Caglar Kurc, a researcher on defense and armed forces, told Arab News.

Kurc thinks Turkey has foreseen the possible arms sanctions and stockpiled enough spare parts to maintain the military during the operation.

“As long as Turkey can maintain its military, sanctions would not have any effect on the operation. Therefore, Turkey will not change its decisions,” he said.

So far, Germany, France, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway have announced they have stopped weapons shipments to fellow NATO member Turkey, condemning the offensive.

“Against the backdrop of the Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, the federal government will not issue new permits for all armaments that could be used by Turkey in Syria,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

Following Germany’s move, the French government announced: “France has decided to suspend all export projects of armaments to Turkey that could be deployed as part of the offensive in Syria. This decision takes effect immediately.”

While not referring to any arms embargo, the UK urged Turkey to end the operation and enter into dialogue.

Turkey received one-third of Germany’s arms exports of €771 million ($850.8 million) in 2018. 

According to Kurc, if sanctions extend beyond weapons that could be used in Syria, there could be a negative impact on the overall defense industry.

“However, in such a case, Turkey would shift to alternative suppliers: Russia and China would be more likely candidates,” he said.

According to Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, the arms embargo would not have a long-term impact essentially because most of the sanctions are caveated and limited to materials that can be used by Turkey in its cross-border operation.

“So the arms embargo does not cover all aspects of the arms trade between Turkey and the EU. These measures look essentially like they are intended to demonstrate to their own critical publics that their governments are doing something about what they see as a negative aspect of Turkey’s behavior,” he told Arab News.

Turkey, however, insists that the Syria operation, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” is undeterred by any bans or embargoes.

“No matter what anyone does, no matter if it’s an arms embargo or anything else, it just strengthens us,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told German radio station Deutsche Welle.