What safe zone? Turkey’s margin to manoeuvre in Syria shrinks

Erdogan sees Moscow as his only hope but he may get nowhere in terms of assistance for his Syria plans.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, last September. (Reuters)
Calling the shots. Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, last September. (Reuters)

Analysing events in the Middle East is like palm reading through opal glass — nothing is as it seems and not much is clear. Today’s political winner is tomorrow’s big loser. Those in power would be wise to listen to good advice, pay attention to history and think everything through more than twice.

US President Donald Trump is the latest victim of his own impulsiveness. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has also been misled by his own delusions of grandeur, doesn’t seem to be able to recover from what looks like a massive misstep.

With ripple effects of the US decision on military withdrawal from Syria, both Trump and Erdogan are in serious trouble. Both have been cornered by their short-sightedness.

The January 16 terror attack in Manbij in north-eastern Syria, in which four US troops were among the 20 people killed, may be just one of the unexpected events linked to Trump’s decision. It is hard to tell what has been set in motion in the complex situation in Syria but the attack will probably lead to consequences that will add to the drama.

Aside from that, the American side realises the implications of a pullout from Syria. It means abandoning a key role in defining Syria’s future. It is tantamount to a declaration that the UN-backed Geneva process is null and void and it leaves a wider opening for Russia and Iran.

Soon after Trump’s stunning announcement of the American pullout, this column argued that, despite Ankara’s euphoric reaction, Erdogan would not emerge a winner. There has been much zigzagging in Washington since then. There is every indication that Ankara is more squeezed diplomatically than ever before and that it has much less room for manoeuvre between the major players in Syrian theatre.

Much of the talk in Turkey has centred on a so-called safe zone, a strip along Syrian-Turkish border. Erdogan said Trump has given Turkey the green light to set up a safe zone, more than 500km long and 32km wide. The region referred to as “east of the Euphrates” is vast. Do the maths and it is clear from the American and Turkish statements that they have a completely different understanding of what this zone is to be about.

Initially, Erdogan was talking about building houses in the safe zone with US financing. Perhaps, the Americans found the idea so laughable he received no reaction from Trump or his aides.

Yasar Yakis, a former Turkish foreign minister, explained to the Ahval news site that Turkey wants to go it alone in controlling the safe zone. The United States wants to secure the Kurdish presence in north-eastern Syria and a no-fly zone through the United Nations. At another level, there seems little clarity on how the American pullout will be handled by the two allies.

Aaron Stein, an American expert on military issues in Syria, posted on Twitter: “The US non-paper says that the US and TR (Turkish Republic) will coordinate on the withdrawal but, per my understanding, the US withdrawal is not conditioned on agreement w/ TR. Why does this matter? If the buffer zone talks implode, the countermoves by the other actors important to future of NE (north-eastern Syria).”

It is not about if but when the buffer zone talks implode. Syria has told Turkey that any move into its territory will be considered a hostile act. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated hesitation about Ankara’s intentions to control a large zone in Syria. Iran is keeping its counsel because it sees the impractical nature of the Turkish position. After the attack in Manbij, the Americans may modify their decision on Syria.

The positioning of all four powers helps to explain a lot. It makes clear that there cannot be a Turkey-controlled safe zone inside Syria without consent from all. The safe zone will remain a verbal reality. It is ridiculous to suppose Turkey will enter foreign territory uninvited, disregard Kurdish private properties and start huge construction projects. Experts agree that a safe zone would, in any case, require a UN Security Council decision.

Faced with this reality, Erdogan sees Moscow as his only hope but he may get nowhere in terms of assistance for his Syria plans. Russia has become impatient with what it views as Turkish inability or unwillingness about Idlib. Jihadists there are advancing instead of being disarmed by Ankara. It is safe to assume that Moscow will talk tough on Idlib. Clearly, Turkey’s margin to manoeuvre has shrunk.

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