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