Kurdish official: Syria's 'safe zone' off to a good start – all eyes now on Turkish president
DARBASIYAH, Syria — Frosty relations between Turkey and Washington may well be thawing after an agreement proposed by US officials over a safe zone in northern Syria is expected to be adhered to by Ankara, a move which might provide some solace to the threat of a conflict in Syria between the Kurds and Turkey.
The creation of a so-called "safe zone" in north eastern Syria has started well with U.S. backed Kurdish-led forces pulling back from a small, initial area along the Turkish border, a Syrian Kurdish official said — but calm can only prevail if Turkey also removes its troops.
Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the executive committee of the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Council, said the understanding reached between Washington and Ankara last month, and in coordination with the Syrian Kurdish-led forces, constitutes a step toward starting a dialogue over mutual security concerns.
"We seek to find a way to dialogue, and starting to implement this plan expresses our readiness and seriousness," Ahmed said in an interview Tuesday September 1 with The Associated Press.
"We want to tell the world and the coalition that we are ready to take serious steps to get to dialogue," she added.
But there was always cynicism and resistance from Turkey, which some analysts believe is more the source of the problem and not the solution. President Recep Erdogan has perhaps unsurprisingly showed disappointment in the situation in Idlib where his own forces and extremists which are paid by him have taken a beating of late, in a zone which was also to be a ‘safe zone’ of sorts when it was originally created.
More recently the firebrand President scoffed at the idea of a safe zone agreement between Turkey and its prime enemy in Northern Syria, the so-called SDF – an Arab-Kurdish coalition of fighters largely drawn from PKK ranks and which Turkey regards as terrorists.
Being quoted recently by the government mouthpiece ‘Daily Sabah’, on August 7, Erdogan initially dismissed the idea with scorn.
“On Aug. 7, Turkish and U.S. military officials agreed to set up a safe zone and develop a peace corridor running from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border to facilitate the return of displaced Syrians currently living in Turkey to their home country and provide security for Turkish border settlements and military outposts. They also agreed to establish a joint operations center” it read.
However, Erdogan’s comment in the piece was less encouraging.
"They say 'It's a very good project' but when it comes to take action, we unfortunately see no support. The safe zone is nothing more than a name right now," he said.
Turkey views the U.S-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria as an extension of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Ankara has already carried out military offensives inside Syria to push the group away from the western end of the border. Over the last weeks, Turkish officials threatened a similar offensive in north eastern Syria, where troops from the U.S.-led coalition are deployed to help the Syrian Kurdish-led forces in combatting remnants of the Islamic State group.
The Syrian Kurds have been America's only partners on the ground in Syria's chaotic civil war. With U.S. backing, they proved to be the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State group and announced its territorial defeat earlier this year. The Kurds now worry about being abandoned by the U.S. amid Turkish threats to invade Syria, and are keen to work out an agreement with both parties that would safeguard their gains.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend repeated threats of an offensive if Turkey's demands on the zone are not satisfied, including that its soldiers control the area.
Ahmed said more U.S. troops will probably be needed to implement the zone, though the Americans have not said whether they will deploy any.
"In the coming days, and because of the needs of the formation and implementation of the security mechanism, they may need more forces. It is not yet clear what the U.S. administration would decide," she said.
There was no immediate comment from the U.S.-led coalition.
No YPG presence
The deal envisions an area five to 14 kilometres deep (three to eight miles) with no YPG presence, as well as the removal of heavy weapons from a 20-kilometre-deep zone (12 miles), she said. Turkey wants a deeper zone. The length of the zone has not yet been agreed on, but will likely stretch hundreds of kilometres (miles).
Ahmed said discussions over other details of the security mechanism will open the way for Syrians who had been displaced from those areas, many of them fled to Turkey, to return. Turkey is home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees and Ankara said it wants the safe zone to provide an opportunity for many to return home.
Ahmed said only those originally from eastern Syria would be allowed to return. Kurdish officials worry Turkey wants to bring back large numbers of Syrians to the areas, which were previously controlled by IS militants, changing the demographic balance in the area. Syria's Kurds are predominantly from the country's northeast, living in mixed or Kurdish-dominated villages and towns there. She said no residents will be displaced because of the implementation of the safe zone.
"Calm must bring with it sustainable dialogue. Calm alone is not enough," Ahmed said. "If Turkish troops don't pull away from the borders, it will always be considered a threat."
Another top Kurdish official, Aldar Khalil, said the Kurdish-led administration and forces would not accept Turkish forces or permanent bases in the so-called safe zone or a free hand for Turkish flights over the area.
He said while an understanding has been reached, a final deal would constitute an indirect Turkish recognition of the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria. He said, however, a final deal is not imminent.