President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested over the weekend that there was something wrong with the proposed safe zone in northern Syria. "We cannot agree to any solution except [Turkish] troops exerting direct control over the area," said Erdoğan, announcing a deadline to show that he meant business: "If our troops do not begin to set up the safe zone east of the Euphrates on our own terms within 2-3 weeks, we will let our counterparts worry about the consequences." Erdoğan's remarks beg the question as to whether the United States was stalling Turkey – a popular concern among Turkish observers. I knocked on some doors asking the same question and here's what I found out. The Turkey-U.S. agreement is currently being implemented according to a previously agreed, 45-day timeline. The terrorist organization PKK and its Syrian component, the People's Protection Units (YPG), must withdraw from the designated "peace corridor" by that deadline.
Sources say that Turkey and the United States took the first step by setting up a joint operation center and conducting joint patrol missions with helicopters. Turkish drones have also been hovering over the area east of the Euphrates River.
Here's an important update: The Americans reported that the YPG has been destroying its trenches near the Turkish border and moving heavy weapons away to ensure that Turkish territories are no longer in their range. Ankara, I am told, remains cautious. Turkey's Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar said recently that Turkey wants to confirm firsthand that YPG militants are leaving.
What are the next steps? Turkey and the U.S. are expected to set up joint outposts along the Turkish-Syrian border. Let us recall President Erdoğan's announcement that Turkish ground forces would enter the east of the Euphrates "very soon." Turkey's entry into the area will have completed the implementation of the peace corridor road map.
So what's not working?
There have been no major problems until now. Yet Turkey and the U.S. do not see eye-to-eye on the proposed corridor's depth either. One problem is that it will take some time to remove terrorists from the countryside as well as residential areas. Turkish sources indicate that YPG forces in urban areas remain in place, even though some militants have retreated from the countryside.
Another issue relates to Washington's eagerness to replace terrorists with pro-PKK/YPG "civilian" entities operating as "self-defense forces." By contrast, Turkey is determined to stop any group with terror links from remaining active there. Hence Erdoğan's words about not accepting any option except direct control of the area by Turkish troops.
The Turkish president is expected to attend the U.N. General Assembly's opening session next month and discuss the situation in northern Syria with U.S. President Donald Trump. That meeting will be crucial for the safe zone's future.
One further thing: Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed Turkey's view on the safe zone at a joint press conference with President Erdoğan last week. He said that the peace corridor was key to keeping Syria in one piece. Both Moscow and Damascus associate the PKK/YPG presence with the United States. Putin's remarks indicate that they both see Turkey's proposed corridor as a defense of Syria's territorial integrity.
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