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Turkey’s balancing act as safe zone finally launched

Turkey and the US have finally announced that the first phase of the northern Syrian safe zone will be launched this week after months-long negotiations carried out between military officials of the two NATO allies.

The announcement came after visits by US military delegations to Ankara in the past two weeks. Although the two sides agreed to make some progress, questions are yet to be answered over the framework and details of the safe zone, including, most importantly, how deep it will go into Syria. 

Turkey has, since the very beginning, been demanding a 32-kilometer-deep safe zone, which Ankara claims that US President Donald Trump has promised. 

However, the American side seems to want to keep it to 10 kilometers. Military officials have said that, after the completion of the first phase, a “step by step” process will be brought into force that will take it gradually deeper into Syrian territory.

The safe zone will see joint patrols by both Turkish and American soldiers, with a joint operations center located in Turkey’s southeastern province of Urfa, which is close to the border and hosts a large number of Syrian refugees. 

Turkey and the US have agreed to a rapid process and the details of the safe zone are on the table, but there is concern that this process may turn out like Manbij, a town in northeastern Syria held by Kurdish forces. “We will not hesitate to take unilateral action if needed,” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar is reported as saying.

This statement from the Turkish side has reached its strategic ally, which is evaluating it in all terms. Thus, Ankara’s determined intention to conclude this safe zone process quickly is not a secret and how deep the safe zone will be is a fair concern for Turkey, which seems to not want to take a backwards step from this point. The depth might be 10 kilometers to begin with and then more, so the calculations might change once the patrols are underway. 

Reading such developments as a matter that could strain ties between Ankara and Moscow would not be accurate. Turkey is taking part in intensive military, political and intelligence diplomacy with Russia. Turkish officials have also announced that Ankara will host a trilateral summit with Russia and Iran on Sept. 16.

This is part of the Astana peace process, which is aimed at ending the Syrian conflict and was launched in January 2017 by Russia and Iran, who are allies of the regime, and Turkey. So far, 13 rounds of talks have been conducted.

Soon after this summit, there is an expectation that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump might have a meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York, which runs from Sept. 17 to 30. These two meetings would provide the opportunity for Ankara to clear its concerns with both parties.

After coming to such a delicate point in the Syrian war, Ankara will seek to use all its diplomatic efforts to maintain its gains on the ground. This — in contrast to the arguments of some — does not mean that Ankara will be controlling the whole process in Syria and will determine what happens next.

Syria is an equation of multiple variables and the ground for multiple actors: There is the US, European and Gulf countries, and there is Russia and Iran. Thus, Turkey must formulate its Syria policy accordingly.