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Erdogan hints at progress on Syrian safe zone

Confusion about a possible safe zone in northern Syria has not abated as Turkey's president continues to claim that progress is being made in cooperation with the United States.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally for the upcoming local elections in Istanbul, Turkey, February 16, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC13AEBB4970

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is back to playing his country’s NATO ally the United States against its Syrian Kurdish partners and Ankara’s tactical ally, Russia, claiming that he and President Donald Trump had carried the issue of a planned safe zone in northern Syria to a “certain point.” He implied that there was progress on this front. But is there?

In a lengthy interview with CNNTurk, Erdogan did not provide any details about what, if anything, had been decided during his Feb. 21 telephone call with Trump, saying simply that the subject of Syria “was at the fore.” He insisted, however, that any safe zone would need to be under Turkey’s control because it was Turkey’s own security that was at risk “because it's my border.”

Erdogan claimed Trump understood Turkey’s concerns, saying, “We have a positive relationship with Mr. Trump.” Direct contact between them was helping “attain instant results,” Erdogan said, but he failed to offer specifics. Russia insists that a safe zone would require the approval of the Syrian government and that territory vacated by the United States needs to be returned to regime control. It has put a damper on Erdogan’s recent enthusiasm for Moscow.

While Erdogan casts the safe zone in security terms, it's also where he would like to park over 3.5 million Syrian refugees who are a huge burden on Turkey’s lagging economy. But many are unlikely to return if the same regime forces they fled are in control.

Erdogan’s comments came a day after the White House announced that the United States would keep several hundred of its 2,000-plus troops currently stationed in northern and southern Syria. Half would be deployed along the Turkish border, ostensibly to deconflict Turkey and its foes from the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the US-led coalition’s primary partner force in the fight against the Islamic State. Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson said the US soldiers would be part of a “multinational force” and that the establishment of a safe zone had been originally proposed by Erdogan.

The reminder suggested that the safe zone may be set up on Turkey’s terms. But neither Turkey nor the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces will be permitted to enter the safe zone, according to Pentagon officials quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Even so, projecting alignment with Washington may prod Russia into softening its stance. Erdogan brought up the 1998 Adana agreement struck with former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad that allows Turkish troops to pursue Kurdish militants inside Syria. Erdogan noted that Damascus had not unilaterally scrapped the deal even after relations between the two countries soured following the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011. He appeared to suggest that Turkey’s invasion of YPG-controlled Afrin last year was covered by the accord, saying, “The Adana agreement allows us to conduct our current operations.” Erdogan insisted, however, that none of this meant that Turkey was conferring “undeserved legitimacy” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first to mention the agreement when he hosted Erdogan in January. The message was clear: Turkey did not need the US-monitored safe zone to address its security concerns. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke of his government’s plans for a buffer zone yesterday and said one of the ideas being floated was the deployment of Russian military police. The zone would be created “on the basis” of the Adana agreement and include “the possibility for the Turkish side to act on certain parts of the border on Syrian territory.” In other words, Russia would decide if and when Turkey could act.

Confusion about the safe zone has not abated. Trump denied that the decision represented a reversal of his previous position that all US troops would be withdrawn by the end of April and well-informed sources familiar with the administration’s thinking predicted Trump would pull the plug yet again.

Britain, which has forces on the ground, has said nothing about committing further troops to the effort, although the administration is widely believed to be keeping troops in Syria to persuade them to do just that. With Brexit looming, Britain is desperate to hang on to its close friendship with Turkey and is unlikely to cross Erdogan. France's President Emmanuel Macron broke his silence today calling the US decision "a good thing." Macron added, "We will continue to operate in the region within the coalition." He did not however mention committing further troops to any safe zone.

A senior SDF official contacted by telephone in northeastern Syria said the United States had not offered his group any solid information about the proposed safe zone. “Nothing has been decided yet as far as I know,” he told Al-Monitor. “Either way, it's out of the question that we would accept any formula that foresees Turkish participation.” In the meantime, the official added, “Whatever happens, the announcement that some US troops are staying has bought us more time and increased our leverage in talks with the regime.”

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