“Only Turkey should be present in the safe zone” that Ankara wants to establish in northern Syria, said its Defence Minister Hulusi Akar last Friday while in Germany for the Munich Security Conference.
He insisted that the area had to be cleared of US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, although he had no objection to “logistical support from allies” after the US troops pull out of Syria. By “allies” he meant the US-led International Coalition in Syria.
At that same conference, US Senator Lindsey Graham called for a “lean, joint military presence” made up of European forces to enforce a safe zone in northern Syria “post destruction of the caliphate”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed his call, stressing the need to work with Russia which will have the greatest influence in Syria after the US withdrawal.
Both Graham and Merkel were effectively reiterating Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s appeal to NATO allies, during his meeting with NATO defence ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, 13 February, to create a new international observer force to take the place of US troops in northeast Syria.
As Graham explained in Munich, the purpose of such a joint force would be twofold: to avert an attack by Turkish forces against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which form the main fighting arm of the US-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), and to forestall the re-emergence of the Islamic State group.
Although neither Shanahan or Graham gave any indication as to whether or not the US would take part in a joint force in northeast Syria, the head of the US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, told The Wall Street Journal on 15 February that the US has “the flexibility to leave some troops there if President Trump decides to maintain an American presence in Syria as a counter to Iran”.
So, what does all this mean to Ankara? Essentially, that its policies continue to reap failure. It first suggested the creation of a safe zone five years ago, ostensibly to protect civilian refugees, but no one listened.
It continued to reiterate this call periodically only to be greeted by the same silence on the part of all major players in Syria. But when Trump, in December, announced his intention to pull US forces from Syria, Erdogan saw an opening and leaped. In the interests of Turkish security, his government would establish a 30-kilometre deep safe zone inside Syria, he declared, sounding as though he could already feel that territory in his grip.
His Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that, now, there was “no alternative” to Turkey’s stepping in to fill the gap created by the US pullout in view of his country’s strength on the ground. He jubilated that the era in which Turkey lost its gains on the ground at the negotiating table was now over.
However, the flush of triumph quickly evaporated as the “immediate” troop withdrawal became clouded by uncertainty, confusion and contradictions from within the Trump administration. “Elements of the US administration are saying different things,” Erdogan fumed as he saw the safe zone beginning to slip through his fingers.
But, if he thought he would have better luck with the Russians in Sochi, he was in for a disappointment. Both Putin and Rouhani made it clear that a Turkish presence in northeast Syria would not be possible without Damascus’s approval — meaning theirs. In a press conference aboard his plane on his way back from Sochi on 16 February, Erdogan did not rule out the possibility of conducting joint operations (with Russia and Iran). “Joint operations can be held at any time in line with developments.
There is no obstacle in front of these,” the Turkish strongman said. However, he was referring to Idlib rather than to the area on which he set his sights for the “safe zone” and the possible incursion Turkish forces could launch into northeast Syria that he has repeatedly warned could happen at any time.
Indeed, the Sochi summit that convened 14 February did not go very well for Erdogan at all, even with regard to developments in Idlib in the west. Putin pointedly reminded his Turkish counterpart of the need to tackle “terrorist groups” and spoke of the possibility of a joint military operation there while Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who before the summit insisted that the area east of the Euphrates should be under Syrian government control, said that Moscow expected Ankara to do more to fulfil its obligations in accordance with the Russian-Turkish agreement to liberate Idlib from terrorists and to disarm the Turkish-backed jihadist factions in Idlib, a task Ankara had been expected to accomplish by 15 October last year.
In January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Al-Nusra Front now occupied 70 per cent of Idlib. “It also worries us that in Idlib, contrary to the agreements on creating the demilitarised zone there, Jabhat Al-Nusra dominates and violates the demilitarised zone,” he said during a press conference with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, in Moscow.
There have been reports that Turkey plans to promote the transformation of the former Al-Qaeda affiliate into a political movement/party — a sort of Sunni equivalent of the Lebanese Hizbullah — and incorporate its fighters into the Syrian National Army.
Rouhani, for his part, backed Putin’s insistence that any safe zone in northeast Syria would need the Al-Assad government’s approval. Damascus had to be able to assert full control over the country before there could be talk about creating safe zones, he said, while simultaneously underscoring the need to rid Idlib of terrorists.
So, it was two against one in Sochi and all sides against Erdogan’s vision for a Turkish-controlled safe zone in Syria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: .Safe zone dead end