days after Ankara and Washington agreed to set up a joint operations center in
Turkey to coordinate and manage the establishment of a “safe zone” in northern
Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday that his
country is determined to clear northeast Syria of Kurdish militants regardless
of the outcome of ongoing talks with the US.
Last Wednesday, the two sides announced that they had agreed to “address Turkish security concerns” and work together on establishing the zone. But despite the agreement, which took months to negotiate, Cavusoglu appeared defiant when he said Turkey “will clear” Kurdish “terrorists from east of the Euphrates like in Syria’s Afrin and Jarabulus at any cost.” He added: “Turkey won’t allow the US to stall the process for the operation east of the Euphrates like they did in Manbij.”
Both sides had agreed on a road map in June 2018 to secure the withdrawal of Syrian Kurds from Manbij to east of the Euphrates, and to establish a new city council. That agreement was not carried out, putting additional strain on US-Turkish ties.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who welcomed last week’s agreement as a first step toward creating the safe zone, has been threatening to launch a large military operation east of the Euphrates since last November.
Turkish troops have intervened twice in Syria since 2011, and Ankara has been talking about setting up a buffer zone along the border with Syria since 2013. The US had opposed such plans, and even after the latest agreement, it is unclear if the two sides have worked out their differences over the depth and size of the proposed zone, or how Washington will deal with its Kurdish allies in that region.
Erdogan finds himself in an awkward position as he tries to balance ties with Russia, Iran and the US, which are all at odds with each other over a number of issues, including Syria. Turkey and Russia are yet to agree on how to resolve the crisis in Idlib province, where the last of the Syrian rebel groups are placed among hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The Syrian regime and the Russians have been undertaking military operations in a bid to take over Idlib, despite the province having been designated a “de-escalation zone.” The regime’s three-month campaign is said to have killed more than 2,000 people and displaced more than 400,000. It is unclear how Ankara’s planned safe zone will handle the Idlib enclave and the remaining pro-Turkey fighters there.
Furthermore, the US is yet to decide how it will work with Turkey to establish the safe zone while maintaining its alliance with the Kurdish militias that have been instrumental in defeating ISIS.
Russia, whose special forces are helping the regime make its slow advance into Idlib, has not commented on the recent agreement, but Damascus was quick to condemn it, describing it as an aggression that serves “Turkey’s expansionist ambitions.”
Erdogan may have long-term plans to remain in northern Syria and secure a place for himself in future peace negotiations. His fear of the threat posed by the Kurdish militias may be exaggerated. One of the immediate goals of the safe zone would be to allow hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to return home. There is strong evidence that the Kurdish militias have attempted to depopulate largely Arab towns in northeast Syria.
Erdogan is hoping to rely on Syrian opposition fighters to spearhead his planned intervention, thus limiting the cost to his own troops. But ties with Washington have been strained, especially since Ankara began receiving the S-400 missile system from Russia against US warnings. In retaliation, the US has suspended delivery of F-35 stealth fighter jets to Turkey.
And with warnings that ISIS fighters are regrouping along the Syrian-Iraqi border, Washington and its Western allies will find themselves in need of Syrian Kurds once more.
The big question now is: How patient will Erdogan be as he waits for the US to give the green light for the safe zone to materialize?
If, as Cavusoglu said, Turkey will go ahead with its military operation regardless of the outcome of talks with Washington, we can expect a further deterioration in ties between the two countries.
On the other hand, Russia and the Syrian regime appear determined to capture Idlib, and Turkey will soon find that its gains there will quickly dissipate. Chances are that any new intervention by Turkey into Syria will not be risk-free, and Ankara will find itself sinking deeper in the Syrian quagmire.