August 18, 2019

Turkish security zone in Syria - not so fast, Sultan Erdoğan

U.S. and Turkish forces joint patrol in Syria (U.S. Army)

Note: This is a follow-up to my earlier article, Erdoğan threatens to invade Syria - this time he just might.

In response to persistent Turkish demands for the establishment of a security zone inside northern Syria, the United States and the Turks have begun the development of the framework for such a zone. It appears that the U.S. side has pared down some of the more ridiculous, unrealistic, unnecessary, and unhelpful Turkish demands and will attempt to prevent Turkish autonomous military action against the Syrian Kurds.

It is important to remember the major participants here. The Syrian Kurds of the People's Protection Units (known by their Kurdish initials YPG) provided the bulk of the ground forces in the U.S.-led coalition-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

It was the SDF who, with massive coalition air support, liberated most of northern Syria from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Turks provided only minimal support, and in most cases, were impediments to SDF operations, at times even attacking YPG forces engaged in combat operations against ISIS.

The Turks believe the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the outlawed Turkish Kurdish Workers' Party (known as the PKK). The United States considers, and has designated, the PKK a terrorist group.* It does not, however, recognize Turkey's claims that the YPG is part of the PKK.

The American efforts are aimed at preventing a Turkish military incursion into northern Syria to eliminate the YPG. I doubt the Turks have the capability to achieve that goal - they have proven to be able to kill a lot of Kurds, but not capable of achieving much lasting military effect. Their two previous incursions have proven to create more problems than they solved.

If the Turkish army mounts a wholesale offensive against the SDF/YPG, it will soon find itself drawn further into Syria and engaged in the exact type of fighting at which the Kurds excel. More importantly, they will be attacking a U.S. ally - there are American forces embedded with the SDF who will be placed at risk.

The plan is - probably purposely - ambiguous. It allows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to appeal to his base with strong talk about attacking "terrorists" in northern Syria, and allows the United States to keep faith with its Syrian Kurdish allies.

It also has the added, and important, benefit of preventing greater political differences between Ankara and Washington. The two countries are already at odds over Turkey's recent purchase of the Russian S-400 (NATO: SA-21 Growler) air defense system, and the resultant U.S. expulsion of Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

According to documents allegedly leaked from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey's demand for and exclusive security zone to protect the country against Syrian Kurdish "terrorists" is now being referred to as a "peace corridor" to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees.

The Turks had wanted an approximately 20-mile deep zone inside Syria to be exclusively patrolled by the Turkish army for the entire length of the 250 miles east of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border.

The U.S. response proposes a three-mile corridor to be jointly patrolled by Turkish and American troops. A further five-mile zone will be patrolled only by U.S. forces. A joint command center will be established in Sanliurfa, Turkey (see map).

Oh, it gets better - the Russians have declared that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad must agree to whatever arrangement the Turks and Americans reach. Of course, that's not going to happen - Syrian agreement would merely legitimize Turkish and American presence in Syria.

It appears to me that the United States is continuing the talks, dragging out the timeline while preventing a Turkish incursion that would be disastrous for the region as well as wider international relations. In any case, the likelihood that Erdoğan is going to control a 20 mile strip of northern Syria is diminishing - and that's a good thing.

He should concentrate on once again being a NATO ally....

* Some critics of this designation believe it was done as a concession to NATO ally Turkey.