In light of U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria, who will fill the emerging power vacuum remains hotly debated. Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had initially agreed on the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria. Yet it seems that Turkey and the United States do not see eye to eye on the nature of said zone. Trump seemed to have been on the same page as Erdoğan at first, yet revised his position under immense domestic pressure. When the issue first came up, Trump's only condition was the elimination of Daesh remnants in Syria. In other words, the U.S. president did not care what would happen as long as the terrorists were no longer on the ground.
Over the following days, however, critics launched a coordinated campaign to raise questions about the future of "Kurdish" – read as: the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the People's Protection Units (YPG) – forces. Trump felt compelled to make certain concessions, as the public debate shifted toward the fate of those fighters after the United States withdrawal.That disagreement led to a dispute over what to call the proposed area. The Turks, who prefer the term "safe zone," believe that it can protect them from terror attacks from the PKK/YPG and Daesh, and provide Syrian refugees a positive incentive to return to their homes.
Turkish officials are confident in the plan, because they successfully implemented it in former terrorist strongholds like Jarablus, al-Bab, and Afrin. Turkey's stabilization and reconstruction efforts in those areas, including its support for health care, educational, and public safety services, improved the security situation and facilitated the return of 350,000 Syrian refugees. Provided that the United States plans to retreat from a larger chunk of territory, the Turkish model could convince an estimated 1 million refugees to Syria and alleviate the crisis affecting Europe. Yet Turkey has to be in charge for that model to function properly. Here's why: The PKK/YPG terrorists engaged in ethnic cleansing and displaced a large number of people. If the same militants are allowed to stick around, the predominantly Arab population of those areas will be unsettled and it will be impossible to restore peace and stability.
Judging by Washington's messaging strategy, the Trump administration wants to create a buffer zone in northern Syria. Accordingly, it wants a third party to control the area after the departure of U.S. forces. The Americans believe that they can stop PKK/YPG attacks against Turkey and stabilize the region by implementing their plan. When a Turkish source in Ankara initially told me that Trump wanted European troops to fill the emerging power vacuum in northern Syria, I dismissed it as a rumor. Yet the U.S. seems to be trying exactly that. The Washington Post published a story confirming my source's claim and Sen. Lindsey Graham told at the Munich Security Conference similar things over the weekend. Accordingly, the United States wants Britain, Germany and France to enforce the proposed buffer zone.
Here is the problem: That plan will never actually work. Let us ignore tensions between Washington and the European Union over the idea of a joint European army and elaborate. Those three counties lack the capabilities to stabilize northern Syria. Deploying some 2,000 troops to the east of the Euphrates River will not neutralize the PKK/YPG threat and, by extension, meet Turkish demands. Keeping in mind that Ankara conducted military campaigns in Jarablus, al-Bab and Afrin (and mounted pressure on Manbij) despite the U.S. presence in Syria, there is no reason to believe that the Turks will ignore what they consider an existential threat because British, French and German troops happen to be there. An additional problem is that any military action by those governments in Syria would lack legitimacy under international law. Last but not least, neither of the three countries have any real power in the Syrian theater – unlike Turkey, Russia and Iran, who must consent to the new plan unless the U.S. and others are willing to risk new crises.