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Pentagon sends team to scout Syria safe zone

A US delegation is in Turkey to coordinate on a safe zone in Syria, but despite the seeming progress, there is no indication of agreement on its size and other details.
U.S. troops patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said - RC1F4F72F170

The Donald Trump administration has sent a military delegation to coordinate with Turkey on establishing a safe zone in Syria, even as the Pentagon faced outstanding differences about the size and extent of the area to separate Ankara and US-backed Kurdish forces.

The composition of the group was not clear, though the Turkish Ministry of Defense said in a statement that a delegation of six Americans arrived in southeastern Turkey today for talks to forge the zone.

“Work is underway to establish a Joint Action Center for the Safe Zone, which is planned to be coordinated with the US in the north of Syria,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a Monday statement. “In this context, a delegation of six people reached Sanliurfa for preliminary preparation.” Turkey said the center would be up and running “in the coming days.”

But US officials remained circumspect about where the safe zone deal was headed on Monday as the Trump administration tries to ensure the Islamic State’s permanent defeat in Syria despite a diminishing American footprint in the war-torn country.

“They’ve agreed and now the devil is going to be in the details,” a US official familiar with the talks told Al-Monitor. “We’re walking a thin line between the Turks and the Kurdish elements on the [US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces].

“The whole point of this is to keep the focus on D-ISIS,” the official added, referencing the US-led campaign to defeat the military group, which the Pentagon has cautioned could be derailed by Turkey’s threats to invade northeastern Syria. The agency’s inspector general warned last week that the US-led drawdown in Syria had allowed the Islamic State to resurge.

The United States and Turkey will have “continued discussions” about the military ins and outs of the deal, including the possibility of joint patrols similar to those in the contested city of Manbij.

Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson said the United States and Turkey had “an initial understanding” in place for a security mechanism on the Syrian border “that addresses Turkish security concerns [and] maintains security in northeast Syria so [IS] cannot reemerge,” that included the operations center, but did not clarify how long it would take to put the arrangement in place.

Another US official said the American and Turkish delegations will likely be involved in scouting of locations for a joint operations center to oversee the zone, but would not be setting up the facility just yet.

Meanwhile, the US administration has “asked a number of countries to help with troops for D-ISIS and stabilization work — not safe zone,” the second official added. “We have been pleased with their response. I would not consider it a one-for-one backfill.” Foreign Policy reported last month that France and the United Kingdom would boost their troop numbers in Syria by 10-15%, with Italy and Balkan nations also expressing interest in contributing forces.

But it’s not clear how much the United States and Turkey have progressed in mitigating differences over the zone, as the Trump administration has insisted for months that it would quickly close a deal to ease Ankara’s security concerns and create a buffer with the Kurdish-dominated SDF.

In June, the dual-hatted State Department Syria envoy and presidential interlocutor to the coalition against IS, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, told Al-Monitor that Turkey and the SDF had a "general" deal to pull back forces for the establishment of a safe zone, which would not include European troops.

Yet experts have questioned whether the Defense Department can keep up the fight against IS and manage the safe zone with just under 1,000 US troops left in the war-torn country.

“It’s an ill-defined document that cannot be enforced with the small number of troops we have in Syria, and dependent on reaching a modus vivendi between the SDF and Turkey,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Al-Monitor. “Its survival is very much in doubt.”

Stein said the deal struck between the United States and Turkey is similar to the so-called Manbij roadmap, a US-brokered deal in 2018 that called for Kurdish elements of the SDF to pull out of the city while American and Turkish forces conducted joint patrols.

The second US official who spoke to Al-Monitor said the deal was similar to the Manbij approach near the Syrian cities of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain, but “a bit more robust.” The official did not detail the differences between the two approaches.

Both sides have continued to harbor differences over the size of the zone and despite the fresh deal, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday that Ankara would not hesitate to undertake unilateral military action if the United States does not meet a demand for a zone 20 miles (32 kilometers) deep. The United States has called for the SDF to leave a three-mile (five-kilometer) strip along the border and to pull heavy weapons back nearly six miles (12 kilometers) beyond that.

“There has been no serious talk of implementation, and expectations differ about the intent of the declaration,” Stein said. “The point of the ops room is muddled because of the lack of consensus about what it is both sides want out of this agreement.

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