Kurdish official: Syria’s ‘safe zone’ off to a good start

Turkey views the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria as an extension of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey. (AFP)
Updated 04 September 2019

Kurdish official: Syria’s ‘safe zone’ off to a good start

DARBASIYAH, Syria: The creation of a so-called “safe zone” in northeastern Syria has gotten off to good start, with US-backed Kurdish-led forces pulling back from a small, initial area along the Turkish border, a Syrian Kurdish official said — but calm can only prevail if Turkey also removes its troops.
Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the executive committee of the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Council, said the understanding reached between Washington and Ankara last month, and in coordination with the Syrian Kurdish-led forces, constitutes a step toward starting a dialogue over mutual security concerns.
“We seek to find a way to dialogue, and starting to implement this plan expresses our readiness and seriousness,” Ahmed said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.
“We want to tell the world and the coalition that we are ready to take serious steps to get to dialogue,” she added.
Turkey views the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria as an extension of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Ankara has already carried out military offensives inside Syria to push the group away from the western end of the border. Over the last weeks, Turkish officials threatened a similar offensive in northeastern Syria, where troops from the US-led coalition are deployed to help the Syrian Kurdish-led forces in combatting remnants of the Daesh group.
The Syrian Kurds have been America’s only partners on the ground in Syria’s chaotic civil war. With US backing, they proved to be the most effective fighting force against the Daesh group and announced its territorial defeat earlier this year. The Kurds now worry about being abandoned by the US amid Turkish threats to invade Syria, and are keen to work out an agreement with both parties that would safeguard their gains.
Ankara and Washington announced last month that they would begin measures to implement a border “safe zone” to address Turkish security concerns. The Kurdish-led forces are expected to pull out of the zone, but details must still be worked out — including who then would patrol and administer it.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend repeated threats of an offensive if Turkey’s demands on the zone are not satisfied, including that its soldiers control the area.
Ahmed said more US troops will probably be needed to implement the zone, though the Americans have not said whether they will deploy any.
“In the coming days, and because of the needs of the formation and implementation of the security mechanism, they may need more forces. It is not yet clear what the US administration would decide,” she said.
There was no immediate comment from the US-led coalition.
There are around 1,000 US troops in Syria on a mission to combat IS militants. President Donald Trump had said he wants to bring the troops home, but military officials have advocated a phased approach.
Ahmed said initial steps have been positive but for calm to prevail Turkish troops must also retreat from the Syrian borders. She said while Turkey expresses concerns about the Kurdish-led forces, it is Ankara that has been a source of threat to Syria with the various military operations and its military posts in western Syria.
The Kurdish-led forces have begun removing fortifications along the border and have moved some troops away from the border. At least two U.S-Turkish joint reconnaissance flights have flown over the area, and on Tuesday, joint patrols between US troops and Kurdish-led forces also examined the area where fortifications have been removed.
The deal envisions an area five to 14 kilometers deep (three to eight miles) with no YPG presence, as well as removal of heavy weapons from a 20-kilometer-deep zone (12 miles), she said. Turkey wants a deeper zone. The length of the zone has not yet been agreed on, but will likely stretch hundreds of kilometers (miles).
Ahmed said discussions over other details of the security mechanism will open the way for Syrians who had been displaced from those areas, many of them fled to Turkey, to return. Turkey is home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees and Ankara said it wants the safe zone to provide an opportunity for many to return home.
Ahmed said only those originally from eastern Syria would be allowed to return. Kurdish officials worry Turkey wants to bring back large numbers of Syrians to the areas, which were previously controlled by IS militants, changing the demographic balance in the area. Syria’s Kurds are predominantly from the country’s northeast, living in mixed or Kurdish-dominated villages and towns there. She said no residents will be displaced because of the implementation of the safe zone.
“Calm must bring with it sustainable dialogue. Calm alone is not enough,” Ahmed said. “If Turkish troops don’t pull away from the borders, it will always be considered a threat.”
Another top Kurdish official, Aldar Khalil, said the Kurdish-led administration and forces would not accept Turkish forces or permanent bases in the so-called safe zone or a free hand for Turkish flights over the area.
He said while an understanding has been reached, a final deal would constitute an indirect Turkish recognition of the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria. He said, however, a final deal is not imminent.


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.