Syria Weekly: Deal or no deal between Turkey and the US?

Syria Weekly: Deal or no deal between Turkey and the US?
Turkey and the US announced a 'safe zone' agreement for Syria this week, adding further uncertainty for millions of Syrians.
7 min read
09 August, 2019
Are Syrian and Turkish forces about to launch a new offensive? [AFP]
Relations between the US and Turkey took a positive turn this week, after intense negotiations between the two countries resulted in an agreement on the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria. 

The deal should address some of Ankara's concerns about the presence of hostile Kurdish forces close to its border, while US President Donald Trump would be able to act on previous pledges to scale-back the American troop presence in Syria.

For Washington's allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - who were instrumental in the defeat of the Islamic State group in Syria - the results of the negotiations will be disastrous, potentially giving Turkish forces control over territories currently under their authority. 

Military build-up?

For now, a new Turkish military operation in Syria remains more theoretical than concrete, with no dates planned for the administration of the "safe zone" plan or details on troop numbers.

"Currently, Turkey is not mobilising its forces. Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces [allied to Turkey] in north Aleppo have various HQs across Turkey with housing built in them and many fighters have stayed there before and during previous offensives but there is no movement," Adi Smajic, a photojournalist who has reported from Syria told The New Arab

"All FSA fighters also have to report to camps but this has not happened so far."

Smajic said that the US convinced Turkey not to take military action in Syria, when Ankara moved military vehicles to west Manbij - a city which lies to the west of the Euphrates River - earlier this year, while Syrian fighters were moved to the Tal Abyad crossing to the north.

"If the offensive should take place then the FSA groups will be mobilised at least a week before the operation happens. But again, there's nothing so far," he added.

Turkey will likely demand that SDF fighters withdraw from the west side of the Euphrates - a demand of Ankara - but the Kurdish-led force would be unlikely to hand over any territories to the east, such as Kobane, the Tishrin Dam, or Raqqa city.

Missile feud

The agreement between Washington and Ankara follows days of intense talks, marred by warning and counter-warnings. 

The timing surprised many observers, coming weeks after a bitter feud between the two countries over Turkey's decision to push ahead with the purchase of Russia's S-400 missile system, resulting in Ankara being frozen out of the US' F-35 fighter jet programme. 

As talks commenced on Monday between Turkish and US diplomats and military officials, an agreement between the two sides appeared out of reach when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a fiery televised speech on Tuesday warning the People's Protection Units (YPG) that Turkish forces were ready to take them on.

All FSA fighters also have to report to camps but this has not happened so far

"Turkey has the right to eliminate all threats against its national security. God willing, we will carry the process started with Afrin and Jarabulus to the next stage very soon," he said, referring to the two Turkish-Free Syrian Army offensives in northern Syria, one of them aimed squarely at the YPG.

To the US, he also issued a thinly veiled warning one day before talks began. "We can only be patient for so long. That patience will come to an end," Erdogan said.

Washington tried to calm the situation by advising Erdogan tone down his rhetoric, but appeared eager to prevent a new Turkish military operation in Syria.

"Clearly we believe any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable," US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said.

"And so what we are trying to do now is work out with them an arrangement to address their concerns and I am hopeful we will get there... what we are trying to do is prevent unilateral incursions."

Then on Wednesday, Ankara and Washington issued a joint statement saying a breakthrough was reached with the establishment of a so-called "safe zone" in northern Syria, which has been a key demand of Turkey.

"From August 5-7, 2019, US and Turkish military delegations met at the Turkish Ministry of Defense to discuss plans to coordinate the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria.

"The delegations agree on the following: a) the rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns b) to stand-up a joint operations center in Turkey as soon as possible in order to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone together c) that the safe zone shall become a peace corridor, and every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country."

Operation Euphrates?

Details on how such an operation would play out are scant but the move comes amid growing pressure on Erdogan to act on the issue of Turkey hosting three million plus Syrians.

A wave of election victories in municipal elections for the rival Republican People's Party (CHP) has coincided with rising xenophobic rhetoric against Syrian refugees. 

Erdogan, who offered refuge to the Syrians when war broke out in 2011 and has provided support to anti-regime forces and political opposition, has been forced to confront the long-term issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey. 

The answer appears to be the establishment of "safe areas" in northern Syria, which would likely be policed by Turkish, FSA, and possibly US forces, and protected from regime or Russian air attacks. 

These "safe zones" and "peace corridors" mentioned in the US statement on Wednesday would allow for the transfer of refugees to Syria. This would be a titanic task for the Ankara and Free Syrian administrations, who would have to facilitate the movement, housing, and humanitarian support for the thousands of refugees who might accept the offer of repatriation to Syria. 

Read also: Elusive US-Turkey deal over Syrian safe zone complicated by S-400 crisis

It would also not deal with the key issue - the refugees would remain displaced persons but now inside Syria, vulnerable to the political whims of foreign powers. 

Idlib is subjected to daily horrific regime and Russian air attacks, while regime areas remain unsafe due to the number of Syrians being "disappeared" by Syrian intelligence on their return home. 

The answer for Turkey might be the problematic model followed in Afrin, when Ankara's offensive in 2018 saw thousands of mostly Kurdish residents flee the northwest Syrian town. 

"If the safe zone is established, Syrian refugees would be able to sign up for housing, after Turkish-backed councils are formed, just as happened in Afrin," Smajic said. 

He also believes that the US and Turkey were unlikely to continue their spat over the missile deal for long given the NATO allies many shared interests in the Middle East. The US-Turkey deal might also delay a new military operation by Ankara for several months, while officials from both countries iron out the details of this complex agreement.

Insurgent attacks

For now, SDF fighters appear to be under the protection of the US and there is no timeframe for the establishment of a buffer zone along Turkey's border, according to public statements.

Ankara's two operations - Euphrates Shield against IS around Jarabulus and Olive Branch in Afrin - were successful in establishing a buffer zone for Turkey in parts of Syria.

The continued presence of Turkish troops in Syria makes them vulnerable to insurgent attacks, whether from IS militants or Kurdish militias, and a new operation could prove costly if SDF fighters put up resistance. 

A sign of this was seen on Friday when Kurdish militants attacked a Turkish military base in northern Syria with an anti-tank missile, injuring two soldiers. Other insurgent attacks on Turkish forces have also taken place in the Afrin region, threatening to draw Ankara into protracted war with Kurdish militants in Syria. 

Yet, as with Iraq, Turkey will be unlikely to withdraw its forces, even if insurgent attacks continue, and the establishment of buffer zones in Syria remains a priority for Ankara. 

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin