Erdogan’s plan for buffer zone in Syria runs into trouble

Turkey has been pressing for a “safe zone” in Syria for years and sees the plan as a way to push Kurdish militants back from the border.
Wednesday 16/01/2019
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters participate in a training manuever using an armoured vehicle provided by the Turkish army, near the town of Tal Hajar in Aleppo's province. (AFP)
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters participate in a training manuever using an armoured vehicle provided by the Turkish army, near the town of Tal Hajar in Aleppo's province. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Russia, the Syrian government and Kurdish militants in Syria rejected a plan by Ankara to create a buffer zone under Turkish control in northern Syria, throwing the project into doubt.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers of his ruling party that he raised the issue of a “safe zone” in Syria in a phone call with US President Donald Trump. Erdogan spoke of a “safe area along the Turkish border in Syria, to be set up by us” and said Trump had spoken of a zone with a depth of 30km.

“We decided to have our teams continue their discussions about all the issues on the agenda,” Erdogan said.

Trump confirmed that the issue of a security zone in Syria came up during the phone call. “Spoke w/ President Erdogan of Turkey to advise where we stand on all matters including our last two weeks of success in fighting the remnants of ISIS, and 20-mile safe zone,” he posted on Twitter.

Turkey has been pressing for a “safe zone” in Syria for years and sees the plan as a way to push Kurdish militants back from the border. Ankara regards the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish militia and a US partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, as a terrorist organisation. The YPG has created an autonomous region along the Syrian border to Turkey that Erdogan says is a threat to his country’s national security.

If Erdogan’s idea behind a “safe zone” is to weaken the YPG, that is not necessarily what the United States has in mind. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in statements during a Middle East tour, stressed the importance to protect the YPG against a Turkish attack.

“We want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate and ISIS have security and also that terrorists… (in) Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey. Those are our twin aims,” Pompeo said. “If we can get a space — call it a buffer zone — if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region.”

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Syrian government must take control of the country’s north and Damascus vowed “to defend its people and the sanctity of its land against any kind of aggression or occupation, including the Turkish occupation of Syrian lands,” said a Foreign Ministry source quoted by the state news agency Sana.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the YPG’s political mother organisation, also rejected Erdogan’s plan. “A safe area under the auspices of Turkey in northern Syria is tantamount to a declaration of genocide against the Kurdish people,” the PYD said on Twitter.

Aldar Khalil, a senior leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria, said the Kurds would accept deployment of UN forces along the separation line between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops to ward off a threatened offensive. “Other choices are unacceptable because they infringe on the sovereignty of Syria and the sovereignty of our autonomous region,” Khalil told Agence France-Presse.

A zone that would ease Turkish concerns would oblige the Kurdish militia to withdraw fighters and weapons from a large part of its autonomous zone in northern Syria, including cities such as Kobane and Qamishli on the Turkish border.

Erdogan said “terrorists” would have to be pushed out of the buffer zone and that Turkey’s state housing agency Toki could build new homes in the region.

The Turkish leader is to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin January 23. The first Turkish-Russian summit of the year comes amid uncertainty about the general US position on Syria. A day before his latest phone call with Erdogan, which was characterised as “extremely positive” by the Turkish leader, Trump vowed he would destroy Turkey’s economy if Ankara attacked the YPG.

Reconfirming his decision to pull the 2,000 US troops out of Syria and his determination to attack remnants of ISIS, Trump added in a tweet January 13: “Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.” In another tweet he said: “Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey.”

The messages alarmed the Turkish government. Writing at 3am January 14, Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and security adviser to Erdogan, said in a Twitter reply to Trump that it was a “fatal mistake” to equate Syrian Kurds with the YPG and its mother organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, regarded as a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States.

“Turkey fights against terrorists, not Kurds,” Kalin wrote. “We will protect Kurds and other Syrians against all terrorist threats.”

As Turkish media slammed Trump’s comments as a “scandal,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a news conference that Turkey would not be “intimidated” and that “strategic partners don’t talk to each other via Twitter and social media.” However, Pompeo said Trump’s threat to devastate Turkey’s economy if it attacks the YPG underscored America’s commitment to its partners.

Trump’s Twitter threats drew sharp criticism from former US analysts and diplomats.

“Whatever differences there are between the US and Turkey, threatening to ‘devastate’ it economically is not in the interest of the United States,” Steven A. Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter.

The threat to economically “devastate” Turkey was a reminder that the United States is prepared to use economic force even against allies. Last summer, American sanctions against Ankara over the detention of a US pastor exacerbated a financial crisis in Turkey. Relations recovered after the clergyman, Andrew Brunson, was freed in October but the two countries’ conflicting interests in Syria have led to new tensions.

Trump apparently decided to withdraw US troops during a phone call with Erdogan in December but mixed signals from the US administration since have angered Ankara.

Cavusoglu said Turkey would “do what is necessary,” a reference to possible intervention in Syria. Pro-government media in Turkey said 80,000 soldiers are massed along the border for what would be Turkey’s biggest military deployment to another country.