ALEPPO, Syria — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded positively to US President Donald Trump's proposal to form a safe zone in the Syrian territory near the border with Turkey in the areas now controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“The safe zone issue, including one to be formed by us along Turkey’s borders — an issue that I have been raising since the Obama era — was repeated by [Trump] him as 20 miles [32 kilometers],” Erdogan said in a speech at the Turkish parliament Jan. 15 before the ruling Justice and Development Party bloc. This comes after his telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump on Jan. 14.
On Jan. 23, Erdogan held talks in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. At a joint press conference following their meeting, Putin said they discussed the US withdrawal and the situation in Idlib, stressing the need to take additional steps on Idlib and not to underestimate the terrorists.
Commenting on the safe zone in northern Syria, he said, “We respect the interests of our Turkish friends, especially with regard to security.”
For his part, Erdogan warned that the terrorist forces will take advantage of the withdrawal of US forces and affirmed that Turkey is ready to confront them. He also pointed out that work is underway to establish a safe zone in northern Syria.
In conjunction with the Putin-Erdogan summit in Moscow, Turkey demanded that the United States completely withdraw its troops from the Syrian city of Manbij without delay and accelerate the implementation of the road map previously agreed to between the two sides.
A week earlier, on Jan. 17, at a joint conference in Ankara with his Macedonian counterpart, Nikola Dimitrov, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stressed the importance of the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria. "A safe zone in northern Syria is important for stability, the return home of Syrians, including our Kurdish brothers, and the fight against terrorism," he said.
But Ali Tami, a member of the Kurdish National Council, told Al-Monitor, “I think the proposed safe zone must be subject to regional and international consensus. The refusal by any party of this idea will hinder its establishment.”
He added, “We believe that handing over the area in northern Syria near the Turkish border to its inhabitants and ousting foreigners is the best solution, at least at this stage. This is the best solution to spare the region a possible war.”
Tami said, “The continued deployment of the Turkish army, the SDF’s support of the return of the Syrian regime and the ambiguous US position toward the SDF indicate that the region is heading towards a disaster. A political solution agreed upon by all Syrian, Kurdish and Arab opposition political forces is necessary. There are only two options. We have to sit at the dialogue table to find a way out. The proposed safe zone area must be cleared of all types of foreign presence and all areas must be handed to their inhabitants. Otherwise, we are heading to a possible war that will open a new door for displacement and migration to Europe.”
Expecting the idea of establishing a safe zone to be accepted in the Kurdish street, he noted that this will be the case if the Kurdish National Council forces are involved in the administration along with other forces of different ethnicities. “Of course there must be an understanding among the international powers, Russia, Iran, the US and Turkey, to make this idea a success.”
Independent Syrian-Kurdish political activist Othman Hussein Abu Shayar said he thought the establishment of the safe zone is a positive step in the right direction. “This step requires great US and Turkish efforts. The zone will be a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Kurds and Arabs of various ethnicities who will be fleeing the US-backed SDF and the Syrian regime inside Syria.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said his country's proposal to establish a safe zone in northeastern Syria was aimed at preventing attacks from Syria on Turkey. During his visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 on his regional tour, Pompeo said Washington wants to protect those who fought with it against the Islamic State (IS).
Shayar said, “The safe zone in the north of Syria will not include the Kurdish forces opposed to the SDF. These Kurdish forces could be deployed only in the area near the borders of the Kurdistan region of northeastern Syria. Turkey will resort to using FSA [Free Syrian Army] factions positioned in the Euphrates Shield area in the northeastern Aleppo countryside. The SDF must be expelled from the area.”
Youssef Hammoud, the official spokesman for the National Army, confirmed to Al-Monitor the active participation by the FSA in protecting the proposed safe zone in northern Syria with the support of the Turkish army. He said, “The zone will be similar to the Euphrates Shield and the Olive Branch areas in Aleppo countryside, but only more developed. The security situation will be better and the zone will witness an economic recovery. If this zone is established, it will be an attractive area for Syria’s displaced people and refugees. It will provide various services that will lure back to Syria the refugees in neighboring countries.”
Hammoud continued, “If there is a US genuine will to establish a safe zone, the SDF will not be able to oppose or foil this plan. The National Army and its allied Turkish army are ready to embark on the first steps of this plan immediately after an agreement is reached on all details. All terrorist entities will be ousted, including the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) labeled a terrorist group by Turkey.”
For Mehmood Nooh, a member of the Kurdish Future Movement, the US administration is not serious about any act that serves the interests of the Syrian revolution. “The US has failed to keep many of its promises regarding northern Syria,” he told Al-Monitor. “The US proposal of a safe zone proposal and Turkey’s initial approval indicate that the two sides have already agreed on how to implement this plan. The first step would be eliminating the SDF affiliated with the PKK and creating alternative forces with the consent of both parties.”
Expressing the Kurdish Future Movement’s appreciation of the idea of a safe zone in the predominantly Kurdish north of Syria, he called for placing this zone under international protection with the participation of Syrian peshmerga forces affiliated with the Kurdish National Council. “These forces hail from this area and they are entitled to take part in the management of this zone alongside the FSA,” he said. “We hope that this zone will be a safe haven for Syrian refugees facing hardship in neighboring countries.”
Turkey raised the idea of a safe zone in 2014. This falls within Ankara’s desire to form a secure border to protect the displaced from the Syrian regime’s shelling and stop the migration flow to its territory. Recently talks renewed about such a safe zone in northern Syria as an alternative to a potential battle against the SDF. Can Turkey pull this off?