Erdogan: Syrian safe zone nightmare

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 24 Jan 2019

While Turkey’s Erdogan claims glory in Syria, his measure of control over the Kurdish issue may soon slip from his hands

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (Reuters)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (Reuters)

One might have thought that last Sunday, 20 January, was a public holiday for the Turks.

At least that was the impression one had from watching ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles and their ultranationalist allies from the Nationalist People’s Party (MHP) as they listened to their leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing Turkish forces in Kilis, only steps away from the Syrian border, by mobile phone. 

With his defence minister and other military leaders at his elbows, he boasted the great accomplishments of the “Olive Branch” Operation that was celebrating its first anniversary on that “glorious day”.

What Turkey has done against “terrorism” in the northwest Syrian province of Afrin will occupy “a central place” in the Turkish collective memory, he said, as he heralded more of the same further to the east.

Not a small segment of the Turkish population — not least those affiliated with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), not to mention millions of working-class people struggling to make ends meet — watched the display and wondered, “What glory?” Ankara’s long and costly adventure into Syria has drained the Turkish economy and Turkey’s international reputation has sunk to a deeper nadir in light of information that has come to light on just how Turkish forces allied with notorious Grey Wolves and an assembly of jihadist militias have been conducting themselves in Afrin.

Reports by international rights agencies have documented hundreds of civilian deaths, the plundering of olive groves and their produce, people forced to pay protection payments and head taxes, rampant property theft, confiscation of people’s homes to turn into “military” headquarters and, contrary to the pledges from Ankara, systematic attempts to bar original inhabitants from returning to their homes and pressuring those who remain to clear out.

Erdogan now plans to plunge in deeper. He has his sights set on areas of northern Syria east of the Euphrates, areas with predominantly Kurdish populations but, until now, peacefully shared with many other ethnic and religious groups, as once was the case in Afrin.

The first item on his Syrian agenda is the “safe zone”, especially now that relations are smoother with his counterpart in Washington, Donald Trump, following the US president’s announcement in December of an imminent US troop withdrawal from Syria.

Of course, Ankara is not the only party concerned with territory across the border in war-ravaged Syria. Turkey may have promoted the idea of a safe zone for eight years but, as former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis recently observed, Ankara had in mind a safe zone that it could control.

This, he said, was “more easily said than done”. For one, there are a lot of people living in the towns and cities that will fall into that approximately 30-kilometre wide safe zone. Ankara envisages “representative” municipal councils for them, but as Yakis points out it will not want members of the predominantly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and, even less, representatives of its military branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), present in those councils. “It is not easy to identify the members of such a big political party,” he noted.

Eventually, Yakis predicts, “the security zone may become a headache for Ankara. A security zone that was created in 1991 by the United States in northern Iraq was later transformed into a no-fly zone and this is how the autonomy of the Kurdish Regional Government in the north of Iraq came into being. This is the worst-case scenario that Turkey would like to see in the north of Syria.”

In fact, Erdogan had precisely such a spectre in mind when, in the course of remarks at an official event in Ankara over the weekend, he said: “We will never allow a safe zone that will turn into a new swamp for Turkey like the one in northern Iraq where we still experience problems.”

In addition to the numbers of Kurdish fighters in northern Syria there is the problem of the weapons they possess. According to Yeni Akit, a newspaper close to AKP circles, American agencies opposed to Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria have furnished the YPG with a large shipment of modern weapons.

The newspaper claims that the shipment included antitank missiles that Kurdish fighters would use against the Turkish regiments that are currently poised to invade Manbij. According to the report, that additional weaponry may force the Turkish army to delay its incursion.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking in Ankara Saturday, attempted to calm Ankara’s concerns while urging the need to slow the US withdrawal from Syria until the Islamic State group is completely destroyed.

He warned that if the troop pull-out were not staged carefully enough it would create an “Iraq on steroids”. He spoke of a plan that the chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, Joseph Dunford, was working on with the Turkish government that would involve moving Kurdish fighters away from the Turkish border.

Graham added that he believed that heavy armaments should be taken from the Kurdish groups.

That, too, may not be as easy as it sounds. As former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis noted, “the number of YPG fighters trained and equipped by the United States is supposed to be around 30,000.

Together with the less trained fighters and local security officials, their number amounts to 70,000.” How will it be possible to take in the weapons from such a large force?

It should also be borne in mind that there are strong differences of opinion in the US both on how to handle the troop withdrawal and on Turkey’s role in Syria.

Brett McGurk, the former US envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, is an outspoken critic of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and his reliance on Turkey to fill the gap. In an article that appeared in The Washington Post last Friday, he argued that, “on Syria, Turkey is not a reliable partner.

The Syrian opposition forces it backs are marbled with extremists and number too few to constitute an effective challenge to Assad or a plausible alternative to the SDF. The areas of Syria that Turkey ostensibly controls, such as Idlib province in the northwest, are increasingly dominated by Al-Qaeda.”

It would appear that Erdogan’s plans of targeting Kurdish groups in Syria that he describes as terrorists will not only drag Turkey deeper into the Syrian quagmire, but ultimately end up backfiring in the form of second Kurdistan after the one that has its capital in Irbil.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Erdogan’s safe zone nightmare

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