Coalition says ‘good progress’ in north Syria buffer zone, thousands return to government-seized areas

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Abu Ahmad, a displaced Syrian from Termala and one of his young sons clear material as they dig a cave for shelter in the village of Kafr Lusin near the Syria-Turkey border, on September 9, 2019. (AFP)
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The children of Abu Ahmad, a displaced Syrian from Termala clear material as he digs a cave for shelter in the village of Kafr Lusin near the Syria-Turkey border, on September 9, 2019. (AFP)
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Abu Ahmad, a displaced Syrian from Termala chats with one his young sons outside a cave he dug for shelter in the village of Kafr Lusin near the Syria-Turkey border, on September 9, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 15 September 2019

Coalition says ‘good progress’ in north Syria buffer zone, thousands return to government-seized areas

  • The Syrian Observatory reported “around 3,000 people” going home from other areas under regime control
  • The Idlib region is one of the last holdouts of opposition forces

TAL ABYAD, Syria: The US-led coalition said Sunday that “good progress” was being made in implementing a buffer zone in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
Turkey and the United States last month agreed on the so-called “security mechanism” to create a buffer between the Turkish border and Syrian areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The YPG led the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views the Kurdish fighters as “terrorists.”
The United States and Turkey launched their first joint patrol of the border areas on September 8, but Ankara has accused Washington of stalling in the week since.
A coalition delegation on Sunday met with members of a military council in Tal Abyad, a northern town from which Kurdish forces started withdrawing late last month.
“We are seeing good progress for the initial phase of security mechanism activities,” the coalition said in a statement handed out to journalists.
“The coalition and SDF have conducted multiple patrols to identify and remove fortifications to address concerns from Turkey,” the statement said.
“Four joint US and Turkish military overflights” by helicopter were also carried out, it said.
Little is known about the buffer zone’s size or how it will work, although Ankara has said there would be observation posts and joint patrols.
“We will continue the removal of certain fortifications in the security mechanism area of concern to Turkey,” the coalition statement said.
Riad Al-Khamis, a joint head of the Tal Abyad military council, said the SDF had withdrawn from the area, to be replaced by the local forces.
He announced US-Turkish “joint patrols in the coming days to ensure the security of the border and the area.”
“They will be joint patrols between the coalition or United States and Turkey in coordination with us, the Tal Abyad military council,” he said.
“The coalition has promised to train the military personnel (of the council) — who are from this area — and support them logistically,” he told reporters.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to go his “own way” if the buffer zone was not set up by the end of September “with our own soldiers.”
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday belittled efforts to create the safe zone as largely “cosmetic.”
Syria’s Kurds have established a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Syria during the country’s eight-year war.
Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to attack Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria, and the prospect of a US withdrawal after the territorial defeat of Daesh in March again stoked fears of an incursion.
Damascus labelled the first patrol last week as a flagrant “aggression” that seeks to prolong Syria’s war.
Turkey has already carried out two cross-border incursions into Syria, the latest of which saw Turkish troops and Ankara’s Syrian rebel proxies seize the northwestern enclave of Afrin last year.
Meanwhile, state media reported on Sunday that thousands have returned to their hometowns in northwest Syria after military advances by government loyalist against militants and allied rebels, .
“Thousands of citizens return to their villages and towns of the northern Hama countryside and the southern Idlib countryside,” state news agency SANA said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported “around 3,000 people” going home from other areas under regime control.
Since August 31, a cease-fire announced by regime backer Russia has largely held in northwestern Syria, though the Observatory has reported sporadic bombardment.
SANA said the returns came amid “government efforts to return the displaced to their towns and villages.”
The Idlib region of around three million people, many of them displaced by fighting in other areas, is one of the last holdouts of opposition to forces backing Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Moscow announced the cease-fire late last month after four months of deadly violence that displaced 400,000 people, most of whom fled north within the militant-run bastion, according to the United Nations.
Regime forces had chipped away at the southern edges of the militant-run stronghold throughout August, retaking towns and villages in the north of Hama province and the south of Idlib province.
Syria’s civil war has killed more than 370,000 people since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.
Assad’s regime now controls more than 60 percent of the country after notching up a series of victories against rebels and militants with key Russian backing since 2015.
But a large chunk of Idlib, fully administered by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate since January, as well as a Kurdish-held swathe of the oil-rich northeast, remain beyond its reach.


Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

Updated 15 October 2019

Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

  • Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades

ANKARA: As Ankara pressed on with its offensive in northeastern Syria amid international criticism, Washington announced some 1,000 soldiers were withdrawn from the zone.

With the US departure, the attention turns to how the regional actors, especially Turkey and Syria, will operate in their zones of influence in the war-torn country where the possible escape of Daesh fighters from prisons could result in more chaos.

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades. The PKK is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the EU and the US.

But, whether some 50,000 YPG fighters will be integrated into the Syrian Army or will try to maintain their autonomy is still a matter of concern.

Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF, recently wrote for Foreign Policy that the Kurds are finally ready to partner with Assad and Putin.

Yury Barmin, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, said: “Damascus and the SDF struck a deal at the Russian base in Hmeymim to let the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) enter the Kurdish-controlled area in the northeast and deploy at the Syrian-Turkish border. The SAA is set to take control over Manbij, Kobane and Qamishli.”

However, Barmin told Arab News that a deal between Damascus and the SDF would greatly contribute to a buffer zone that Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdogan intends to create in northern Syria, allowing Kurds to take some areas along the border without directly antagonizing Ankara. This policy, Barmin added, would be unacceptable to Moscow.

“There are now lots of moving targets and the goal of the Syrian Army — whether it will take some strategic cities or control the whole border along Turkey — is unclear for now. As Russian President Vladimir Putin is on his official visit to Saudi Arabia, his decision for Syria will be clearer when he returns home,” he said.

HIGHLIGHT

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Barmin also noted that Russia let Erdogan operate the Adana agreement to a certain extent, under which Turkey has the right to conduct cross-border operations.

“But now, Russia would like to show Turkey its own red lines in the region,” he said.

However, Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said that the Syrian regime is not capable of striking a deal without being backed by Russians, and that Moscow would not want to lose its relationship with Ankara.

“Russians always talk about the Adana agreement. We are now talking about a renewal and reactivation of the agreement with new specifications to allow Turkey to go deeper into Syrian territories. In this way, the Russians will have a bigger chance to allow the Syrian regime and Turkey to communicate. It is something that will open the diplomatic channels,” Saban said.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Big sanctions on Turkey coming! Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey? Never ending wars will end!”

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said that if the US is completely out of the way, Russia and Turkey will have to either agree or contest each other to take over the US territorial control in northeast Syria. He added that this might be the most crucial race in the coming weeks.

Concerning the diplomatic channels between Damascus and Ankara, Macaron thinks that the channels were and will remain open between Moscow and Ankara since they have common interests beyond Syria.

“If Turkey had no other option, it might have to settle for controlling a few border towns, but this means Erdogan can no longer effectively implement his plan to return Syrian refugees, most notably without funding from the international community. Ankara is more likely to succeed in striking such a deal with Moscow than with Washington,” Macaron told Arab News.

Many experts agree that the Syrian chessboard will be determined predominantly by Russian moves.

“Assad has no say in what will happen next, Russia is the decision maker and there is little the Syrian regime can do unless Iran forcefully intervenes to impact the Russian-Turkish dynamics in the northeast,” Macaron said.