Fleet­ing friend­ships

Turkey-U.S. an­nounce first steps to set­ting up safe zone in Syria. But is that the right term?

Dünya Executive - - COVER PAGE - Il­ter TURAN Colum­nist IN­TER­VIEW: ADNAN R. KHAN

Last week, we ap­par­ently wit­nessed what both the Turk­ish and Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments are char­ac­ter­iz­ing as progress on set­ting up a “safe zone” in north­ern Syria. Af­ter months of of­ten ac­ri­mo­nious ne­go­ti­a­tions, the two sides agreed to set up a Joint Ac­tion Cen­ter in Şan­lıurfa where the yet-to-be es­tab­lished “safe zone” will be co­or­di­nated. But our chief po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist rec­om­mends caution, and a healthy de­gree of skep­ti­cism. “I think a bet­ter name for this ‘safe zone’, if it is ever set up, would be ‘avoid con­fronta­tion zone’,” he says. Indeed, it seems there are still sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences be­tween Turkey and the U.S. over the modal­i­ties of the zone, in­clud­ing basic ques­tions like how big it will be and who will oc­cupy it and­who shall be in con­trol. What then is the more re­al­is­tic way to view this devel­op­ment?

► Adnan R. Khan: Does this so-called safe zone have any his­tor­i­cal prece­dence?

Il­ter Turan: The idea of this safe zone does not have a solid foun­da­tion in ear­lier in­ter­na­tional prac­tice. His­tor­i­cally, there have been ar­eas des­ig­nated as neu­tral zones be­tween coun­tries that have ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ships. The goal of these zones is to re­move the area from con­tes­ta­tion and/or re­duce the prob­a­bil­ity that the forces of the two ad­ver­sar­ial coun­tries will clash with each other. In later ex­pe­ri­ence, some­times the UN peace keep­ing forces have in­serted them­selves be­tween the fight­ing sides. When we look at the cur­rent “safe zone”, we’re talk­ing about some­thing dif­fer­ent. This zone is not be­tween two coun­tries that are di­rectly in­volved in con­flict. It is an area that was ini­tially in­vaded by an out­side in­truder - the U.S. To spare its own forces from fight­ing what it con­sid­ers its enemy – ISIS, the U.S. then used a lo­cal proxy. Now, as it hap­pens that lo­cal proxy is a se­cu­rity challenge to a neigh­bor­ing state called Turkey. The U.S. has ar­gued that this isn’t the case but they are in fact equip­ping and train­ing peo­ple who may very well use these skills and equip­ment to challenge Turkey at a later time.

To be­gin with, the chal­lenges in this par­tic­u­lar “safe zone” are very dif­fer­ent com­pared to ear­lier zones. Se­cond, one of the goals of Turkey is to re­set­tle some of its Syr­ian refugees in this area. This is a par­tic­u­larly egre­gious de­par­ture from neu­tral zones of the past. I doubt that many Syr­ian refugees in Turkey came from this area. I won­der even more if they would want to go back to an area where they have no pre­vi­ous roots. The third prob­lem is that this ter­ri­tory right­fully be­longs to the state of Syria and pre­sum­ably there is gen­eral agree­ment that the borders are not to be changed. So, how this safe zone will be main­tained in the long run is an in­ter­est­ing question, pre­sum­ably one that will be taken up in even­tual talks that will en­able Syria to get back to nor­mal. But those talks still appear to be a long way off. And, in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics we of­ten have tem­po­rary arrangemen­ts that re­main tem­po­rary forever. This may prove to be one such case. Let me caution, how­ever, that a “safe zone” es­tab­lished by out­side pow­ers may not be a good idea sine it is likely to breed per­ma­nent el­e­ments of instabilit­y.

► Adnan R, Khan: All of this is play­ing out with­out the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Syr­ian regime. Its re­sponse has been to urge the YPG to align with the gov­ern­ment to fight what it calls the “ag­gres­sive U.S.-Turkey project”. Do you think this could push the YPG closer to the regime?

Il­ter Turan: I think the YPG might want to move closer to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment but we must not for­get that the YPG, if not a cre­ation of the U.S., is cur­rently a crea­ture of the U.S. With­out Amer­i­can sup­port, there would have been no sig­nif­i­cant YPG force. Un­der these cir­cum­stances, the YPG is faced with some crit­i­cal choices. The U.S. in­sists that the As­sad regime, in its cur­rent form, should not re­main in power. It is per­ceived rightly by the U.S., as an ally of Rus­sia; and the con­tes­ta­tion in Syria is in part be­tween Rus­sia and the U.S. The YPG, even if it wants to reach an ac­com­mo­da­tion with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, may find it dif­fi­cult to do so if it wants, at the same time, to main­tain Amer­i­can sup­port. It would be a ma­jor de­par­ture from its cur­rent pol­icy if it sim­ply gives up the Amer­i­can con­nec­tion and makes peace with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment. But that would hardly serve the YPG’s am­bi­tions. It is in a dif­fi­cult position.

It seems that the ra­tional thing for Turkey is to beat the YPG to that endgame; that is, to reach out to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and try to ne­go­ti­ate an agree­ment in which Turkey, in re­turn for rec­og­niz­ing the ter­ri­to­rial integrity of Syria and the le­git­i­macy of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment with­out ifs and buts, would be as­sured that the YPG would not be al­lowed to men­ace it.

►Adnan R. Khan: These are some pretty big gaps be­tween Turkey’s goals and Amer­i­can goals. What then is the point of set­ting up this Joint Ac­tion Cen­ter in Şan­lıurfa?

Il­ter Turan: In fact, one might be in­clined to use the term ir­rec­on­cil­able. Turkey wants no YPG; the U.S. can­not sus­pend its back­ing of the YPG if it is to achieve its goals in Syria. There is also the is­sue of rep­u­ta­tion: The U.S. has used these peo­ple. If it leaves them out in the cold now, that would un­der­mine Amer­ica’s im­age as a re­li­able part­ner, es­pe­cially at a time when it is con­stantly in search of lo­cal prox­ies to help it im­ple­ment its goals. But some face­sav­ing mech­a­nism to avoid full con­fronta­tion has to be found. The Joint Ac­tion Cen­ter in Şan­lıurfa may be the be­gin­nings of that mech­a­nism.

► Adnan R. Khan: What is the al­ter­na­tive if no solution is found?

Il­ter Turan: One al­ter­na­tive, as I’ve al­ready men­tioned, would be to ap­proach the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, though I doubt this is on the ta­ble with much force yet. The other op­tion that has con­stantly been men­tioned is Turkey’s mov­ing its troops into the area. This is what the two sides have been trying ex­plic­itly to avoid because no­body wants Turkey and the U.S. to clash with each other. There may be other pos­si­bil­i­ties like trying to bring in Rus­sians and Ira­ni­ans into the pic­ture, per­haps strik­ing a deal to en­sure that the ter­ri­tory east of the Euphrates in which the U.S. op­er­ates re­mains an in­te­gral part of Syria. And it’s al­ways the case that coun­tries, when they are fac­ing dif­fi­cul­ties on one front, de­prive the other party of fa­cil­i­ties on an­other front. The ul­ti­mate weapon Turkey has is the clos­ing Amer­i­can mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties in Turkey of which İn­cir­lik air­base is the most prom­i­nent. That should not be totally ruled out.

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