Turkey’s Syrian safe zone plan remains on ice
Turkey has persistently voiced that it will carry out a military operation to the east of the Euphrates in Syria if an agreement cannot be reached with the US to set up safe zones in the northeast of the country.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has never given up on this idea. To begin with, he referred to a vague date for the launching of the operation. When the negotiations with Washington gave signals that they might bog down, he became more precise on the date of the operation. Finally, at the beginning of September, he started to say that, if a firm agreement could not be reached for the expulsion of Kurdish fighters from the region before the end of the month, Turkey would act on its own.
Turkey and the US remained on different wavelengths throughout this chapter of their catalogue of disagreements. They were not able to eliminate their differences, but a modus vivendi seems to have been established after all. Washington continues to supply arms and ammunition to the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Turkey continues to complain about it. Ankara has not stopped sending reinforcements to the Syrian border and the two countries continue to carry out joint — or parallel — patrols on the Syrian side of the border. A few shelters and ammunition stores, built close to the border by the US for the YPG, have been destroyed upon Turkey’s request.
The signals coming from Washington are still ambiguous. The Pentagon keeps repeating that Turkey’s unilateral military action in northeastern Syria is “unacceptable.” As the deadline for Turkey’s potential intervention approached last week, James Jeffrey, US Special Envoy to the Global Coalition Against Daesh, said Washington would continue to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose backbone is composed of the Kurdish fighters.
In his opening address to the Turkish parliament on Oct. 1, Erdogan re-emphasized the importance of his project of setting up a safe zone in Syria and constructing houses for the Syrian refugees to be repatriated from Turkey. When, two weeks ago, he raised this proposal at the UN General Assembly, it attracted the interest of certain countries. If it works, it may solve several problems: Many Syrian refugees would return to their country; they would settle in houses that will be become theirs; and Erdogan would be able to tell the domestic public that he fulfilled his safe zone promise. But the flip side of the coin is that Syria is already opposing the construction of houses in its own territory by a foreign country. The international community may also oppose the plan because it will amount to changing the ethnic composition of the region’s population, especially in an area where Kurdish-Arab rivalry is sensitive. Other countries that are opposed to Turkey’s gaining prominence in the region may also raise obstacles to its implementation.
Like all other foreign players in Syria, Turkey’s interests converge with some and diverge with others.
Russia has consistently stated that Turkey has legitimate security worries at its border with Syria. This may partly be aimed at keeping Turkey on its side amid Ankara’s chronic disagreements with Washington. Russia’s position on the Kurdish issue is closer to the US’ than to Turkey but, for tactical reasons, it keeps its relations with Turkey in a manageable framework because this helps Moscow drive a wedge between the NATO partners. Furthermore, Turkey and Russia have close cooperation in the economic and military fields and are running a de-escalation project in Idlib.
Russian President Vladimir Putin came up with a creative idea in February’s Sochi meeting, when he proposed that Turkey reactivated an existing framework, the Adana Agreement of 1994, which was signed by Turkey and Syria to allow cooperation in the fight against Kurdish terrorism. But Turkey is still keeping its distance from the idea of cooperating with the Bashar Assad regime. Like all other foreign players in Syria, Turkey’s interests converge with some and diverge with others. In addition, its interests may converge with a country in one field but diverge with the same nation in another field.
In its refusal to cooperate with Damascus, Ankara is closer to Washington than to Moscow. But its national interests are closer to those of Syria than to any other player in the crisis.
Turkey’s interests in northeast Syria are incompatible with those of the US. It is unlikely the US will give up its support for the Kurds. The best solution for these two NATO allies would be to find common ground and avoid an unnecessary crisis that will do nothing but exacerbate the problems in their relationship.
At the end of the day, the most important point is that Turkey has not so far carried out the incursion it threatened to the east of Euphrates despite the fact that the deadline passed a week ago.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar