US President Donald Trump last week tweeted that a buffer zone would be created in northern Syria to protect the Kurds.
This is not the first time that the idea of such a zone has been proposed, but Trump’s proposal this time round carries more weight.
The issue is a priority for Turkey, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly announced that the two powers had reached an “historic understanding” regarding a safe zone in northern Syria.
Erdogan said he was positive about Trump’s plan to create a 20-mile (32 km) safe zone in northern Syria, which can later be expanded.
He said the goal was to “provide security for Syrians receiving financial and logistical support from Washington and the International Coalition” and noted that the safe zone would be created in consultation with the guarantors of the Astana Talks on Syria, namely Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Erdogan said he had refused to accept the participation of separatist Kurdish militias in the operation, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara lists as a terrorist group.
He also said he would postpone a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria after the recent US decision to withdraw its troops from Syria.
The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad rejects the Turkish presence in Syria and asserts that it is illegal, but the Turkish media has promoted the idea of a safe zone to guarantee security on the country’s southern border.
The Turkish Daily Sabah newspaper quoted investors as saying that the zone would also host development projects that would provide local people with jobs and help Syrian refugees to return to their homeland.
The Kurds said they were ready to support a safe zone in northern and eastern Syria, and they hope to reach an agreement with Turkey to guarantee stability and security in the border areas.
They said they would provide assistance in creating a safe area with international guarantees under UN supervision.
The Kurdish declaration coincided with a bomb attack in Manbij in northern Syria that killed 19 people, including four Americans. Erdogan said the bombing had aimed to put pressure on the US to keep its forces in Syria since they are the sole supporters of the Kurds.
The US decision to create a 20-mile safe zone will include all the major cities under Kurdish control, which will become neutral areas not serving Kurdish interests.
As a result, it seems likely that the Kurdish approval is only verbal and that the Kurds will insist on preconditions that are hard to accomplish due to the complicated situation on the ground and the presence of multiple players with contrary agendas.
It is not clear who will guarantee the security of the safe zone, since while Turkey wants this area under its control, some European diplomatic circles said there might be an Arab role or direct US supervision.
Ankara has been firm with Washington and will not allow Kurdish military forces to remain on its borders. Erdogan refused to meet with US National Security Adviser John Bolton on 7 January, sending a message to the US that he would not abandon his country’s security interests and hoping to exploit possibly diverging views within the administration.
Turkey wants to convince the US that it is a partner in fighting the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Syria and that Kurdish Peshmergas forces should be deployed in the safe zone.
The Peshmergas are the forces of the National Kurdish Council, which is part of Syria’s political opposition, and the rivals of the separatist Kurdish militias led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that Turkey lists as a terrorist group.
This step could pave the way to creating local councils with Syrian members in the region and guarantee stability in northern Syria.
Turkey supports US plans for the east of the Euphrates River in Syria, but it wants to ensure that it has a primary role in managing the area after the US troops withdraw. The intention is to tighten the noose on the Kurdish militias and protect Turkey’s “national security”.
When the Syrian regime had free rein to use its military arsenal against the country’s opposition some years ago, creating a safe zone was one of the demands of the Syrian opposition.
Turkey and members of the “Friends of Syria” group repeatedly made this demand, but the former US administration refused it on the pretext that terrorist groups could be encouraged to take power from the Al-Assad regime.
However, in reality the US position was based on its desire to see Syria bleed, serving Washington’s interests, weakening all the parties in the war and serving Israel’s security interests.
The US has declared the war against IS in Syria to be finished, meaning there is no justification to keep US forces on the ground in the country. As a result, it seems that the US will now delegate the safe zone in northern Syria to Turkey as well as the fight against remnants of the terrorist groups.
However, US and Israeli disputes have caused confusion about the actual date of the US withdrawal and the future of a safe zone. When Erdogan declared he would “bury” the Kurdish militias and expel them from the area, Trump warned Turkey against attacking his Kurdish militia allies and threatened to “destroy” Turkey’s economy.
A safe zone in northern Syria will benefit Turkey because it will take control of the area. Russia now controls some areas of the country and the regime others, while Iran and its militias dominate other parts.
The Syrian opposition will not have a role, whether in the proposed safe zone or elsewhere, which will likely force it to come up with plans to become a viable force or risk increasing marginalisation.
The danger is that the end of the Syrian Revolution will see the division of the country among the regional and international powers at the price of nearly one million dead Syrians.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Safe for non-Syrians