No safe zone

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Friday 23 Aug 2019

Turkey’s Erdogan continues to sabre-rattle on the Kurdish question and northern Syria, lining up to clash with Washington

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a ceremony marking the third anniversary of the attempted coup at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, July 15, 2019. REUTERS

Whereas not so long ago Erdogan’s Turkey lent a safe corridor for Islamic State (IS) group recruits on their way to and from Syria, the Turkish government has begun to target the very types who once enjoyed its protection.

On Wednesday last week, 14 August, Turkish police arrested three suspected IS members in the southern city of Adana, and some weeks before that they arrested 24 people in Samsun on the Black Sea, also on the grounds of alleged IS membership. The reports elicited no small amount of commentary — largely sarcastic — on social media.

Not a few commentators refused to believe the reports or chalked them up to propaganda or a form of smokescreen.

To lend weight to such beliefs, the Syrian state-run news agency SANA reported, on Monday, 19 August, “Turkish vehicles loaded with ammunition, weapons and material equipment passed through the Syrian-Turkish borders on Monday morning and they entered Saraqeb city on their way to Khan Sheikhoun to help the defeated terrorists of Jabhat Al-Nusra (Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham), which is on the lists of the Security Council as a terrorist organisation. This confirms again the continued unlimited support provided by the Turkish regime to the terrorist groups.”

This is hardly the first and last of the conflicting twists and turns that characterise the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Two weeks ago, in a speech to mark the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid Al-Adha), Erdogan threatened a new military operation in northern Syria this month.

August is “the month of victories in the history of the Turkish nation”, he proclaimed. But despite continued troop amassments along the southern border, the operation will not take place. This is not because August is about to end, but because Washington has made it very clear that it would not approve.

A similar situation applies to the so-called “safe zone” in northern Syria that Erdogan has set his sights on. Contrary to official claims from the highest levels in Ankara, the US State Department affirmed that negotiations with Ankara have resulted in a “Joint Coordination Centre”, “a security mechanism” and other such arrangements that fall short of the Turkish conception for a safe zone which Ankara wants to control.

Retired general Joseph Votel, former commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), is strongly opposed to such a safe zone. In an opinion piece for The National Interest on 12 August, he writes: “Turkey has long pushed for at least a 20-mile-deep (32 kilometres) zone that would be off limits to YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces and expressed a preference to control it alone. If those are indeed the parameters of the proposed zone, it will create more problems for all parties involved.”

In the article, which he wrote jointly with Gönül Tol, professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, he warns: “Safe zones are generally established to protect people in conflict zones and are usually designed to be neutral, demilitarised and focused on humanitarian purposes. Imposing a 20-mile-deep safe zone east of the Euphrates would have the opposite effect — likely displacing more than 90 per cent of the Syrian Kurdish population, exacerbating what is already an extremely challenging humanitarian situation, and creating an environment for increased conflict that would require an extended deployment of military forces.”

Others in the US Department of Defense appear to share his views. Recent statements from the Pentagon offer nothing that could be read as a US approval of the type of safe zone that Turkey envisions.

On the contrary, Pentagon officials have stressed the need to continue to support the US’s allies on the ground in Syria, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and to focus on the complete defeat of IS so as to ensure it does not re-emerge.

While they did not comment on the news that some 90 US soldiers went to Turkey in order to put the preliminary agreement between Washington and Ankara into effect, they took pains to dispel any fears of arrangements that could lead to possible demographic changes in Kurdish controlled areas of northeast Syria.

As Pentagon officials have stated, the agreement is designed to dispel Ankara’s fears concerning the threat from northern Syria, even if, according to Vogel, there is little to justify such fears.

“There is no evidence to suggest the area is being used as a platform to attack Turkey,” he wrote. At the same time, the arrangements have forestalled a Turkish incursion into northeast Syria.

True, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that US President Donald Trump had promised Turkey that the safe zone would be 20 miles deep.

Yet, in a press conference on 15 August he acknowledged that there remained many matters that still needed to be worked on in detail with Washington. In other words, the actual scope and shape of the safe zone is still shrouded in fog.

Still, nothing will stop Erdogan and other officials in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from reiterating their stock-in-trade fear-mongering and belligerent rhetoric.

On the area in question, for example, the following have become almost cliché: “The area east of the Euphrates is a home for terrorists” (YPG, which form the backbone of the SDF), “The US must stop dragging its feet on the safe zone!”, “Turkey is determined to purge the east of the Euphrates just as it has purged Afrin and Jerablus” (again referring to the YPG), “[Turkey] will not allow the US to divert it as it did with the Manbij agreement,” and, “Turkey is ready to act alone in order to create the safe zone. It has alternative plans.”

Perhaps such rhetoric was to be expected. In an opinion piece that appeared on the Deutsche Welle Website 10 August, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung journalist Rainer Hermann observed: “Following his party’s setback in municipal elections, Erdogan needs a common purpose to reunite the nation behind him.

The conflict with the Kurds reliably serves this purpose.” Hermann warns of the multiple dangers of a possible third Turkish incursion into northern Syria.

Meanwhile, Vogel advises: “The ideal solution to the security dilemma of all parties involved is for Turkey to resolve its domestic Kurdish problem peacefully.” Sadly, no one in Ankara these days is willing to hear this advice.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: No safe zone

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