US and Turkish perspectives on a Syrian safe zone

Published 07.08.2019 00:48

Turkey has been trying to establish a safe zone in the northern region of Syria since 2012. The main goal of the Turkish demand was to create a haven for civilians, to stop the influx of more refugees into Turkey and to prevent terrorist organizations from filling the gap created during the civil war.

Turkey has been trying to prevent the negative implications of the Syrian crisis. Recently, the possibility of a new wave of refugees into Turkey has raised questions about the future of the planned safe zone. At a time when the existence of Syrians in the country is being discussed by politicians, Turkey plans to send some Syrians to the planned safe zone.

However, its allies, the United States in particular, have never taken Turkish security concerns into consideration. The U.S. under both the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations chose not to support Turkey in its attempts to take necessary measures against terrorist groups in Syria.

Turkey and the U.S. have different, mostly clashing, policy preferences regarding the safe zone. There are three significant issues on the negotiation table: the depth of the safe zone, control of the safe zone and the future of the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG) beyond the border.

On one hand, Turkey wants to establish a 30-kilometer-wide zone under its control and wants the neutralization of the YPG to protect its national security. On the other hand, the U.S. is offering a 14-kilometer-wide zone under the joint control of the U.S. and Turkey and wants to maintain the YPG as an active actor in its fight against Daesh.

Why has the U.S. administration abandoned its policy of ignoring the safe zone discussion and now brought the issue to the negotiation table? There are several answers to this question.

First, Washington wants to utilize the safe zone as a bargaining chip to ensure the status of the YPG. Instead of cooperating with Turkey, the U.S. hopes to maintain the status quo in the area east of the Euphrates and ensure that the YPG gains political status over the territory under its control. It seems that the U.S. has a long-term strategic vision regarding the region, and YPG is expected to play a central role for this regional design.

Second, Washington considers the creation of a safe zone in the region a temporary solution and has continued attempts to minimize opposition to its regional strategy. It wants to establish a safe zone to avert challenges directed at the YPG. Third, U.S. officials intend to ease Ankara's concerns; thus, the U.S. is aiming to prevent Turkish opposition to American regional policies.

Turkey continues to demand the U.S. sever its ties with the YPG. Despite pressure from Turkey, U.S. officials insistently refuse to recognize the YPG as a terrorist organization since they consider it the main partner and ally in their struggle against Daesh. The latest statement of the Turkish National Security Council emphasized that Turkey is committed "to creating a peace corridor," in other words a safe zone, in northern Syria.

The same emphasis was made by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has renewed a pledge to carry out a cross-border military operation east of the Euphrates to clear its border of the YPG, also known as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Erdoğan has declared that the two other countries on the ground, namely the U.S. and Russia, have been informed of the planned offensive. Erdoğan clearly explained that Turkey will enter the area east of the Euphrates, as it did in Jarablus and Afrin.

Turkey has been accusing the U.S. of delaying improvement on setting up the planned safe zone. Even though the U.S. made promises to Turkey and even signed a memorandum about the area west of the Euphrates, the Manbij region, it did not hold up its end of the bargain and no meaningful steps were taken. The postponement of a workable solution will increase costs for Turkey.

Therefore, Turkey will have to take some – if necessary unilateral – measures to eliminate threats directed at its national security. As a second choice, Turkey must cooperate with the U.S. and establish and control the safe zone together. In this case, the Manbij model is a workable solution.

That is, both Turkey and the U.S. will have to take necessary measures and initiate joint management of the region. Otherwise, Russia and the Bashar Assad regime will exploit this conjuncture and adopt initiatives that are detrimental to the interests of both Turkey and the U.S.

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