Intel: How Trump's tweet is sparking debate over a new Syrian ‘safe zone’

al-monitor Fighters from a new border security force under the command of Syrian Democratic Forces hold flags during a graduation ceremony in Hasakeh, northeastern Syria, Jan. 20, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Rodi Said.

Jan 14, 2019

As he cuts his seven-country Middle East tour short today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once again finds himself fending off questions about foreign policy directives hatched via presidential tweet. The latest confusion began on Sunday when President Donald Trump called for a "safe zone" to protect US-backed Syrian Kurds fighting near the Turkish border.

Why it matters: Trump’s tweet, Pompeo told reporters, aimed to “make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the [Islamic State] caliphate … have security, and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey. Those are the twin aims.”

Since the United States and Turkey are still hashing out the details, Pompeo said, the “precise methodology” on next steps is still in the works. The top US diplomat indicated that the Trump team hasn’t decided whether it will be a “safe zone” or a “buffer zone.” President Trump called his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan today and called for the United States and Turkey to work together in the northeast, including to make sure the Syrian Kurds are not attacked, according to a readout of the call.

Give and take: The emerging “safe zone” plan could see the Turks gain more control on the border with Syria, potentially allaying Ankara's fears of US military support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. Experts tell Al-Monitor such a zone could keep Turkish forces away from areas liberated from the Islamic State in the Euphrates Valley.

"My understanding of US policy is, now, to try and keep the Turks out of the northeast, even if the US pushes for the YPG to accept some Turkish-backed opposition into areas along the border," said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank.

Whose zone? Trump’s tweet and Pompeo’s gaggle also didn’t make clear who would enforce the new US-backed "safe zone." Soner Cagaptay, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, indicated that Turkey and the YPG would share power in the northeast — with Ankara taking the countryside and the Syrian Kurds taking major cities. The AFP wire service reported that Pompeo’s comments didn’t indicate whether the United States or Turkey would be in charge of the safe zones.

What’s next: With 2,200 US troops set to withdraw from Syria, experts tell Al-Monitor that the Trump administration may be debating how to bring a residual CIA presence into the fight to monitor the defeat of the Islamic States, keep Iran out of the country and deter Turkey from striking the Kurds.

“This is the challenge of Turkey,” said Nick Heras, a Middle East fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “How do you deter a treaty ally other than with the force of persuasion?” One alternative, Heras said, would be to use so-called Title 50 authorities for fighting unconventional foreign threats to allow CIA paramilitaries to enter the fight.

The Title 50 option, which would see the covert units deploy to Syria directly, is only one potential option. The Trump administration is also considering a Pentagon-backed plan that would allow US commandos to conduct cross-border raids, according to the New York Times.

In his remarks in Riyadh, Pompeo specifically indicated Trump had decided to withdraw “uniformed personnel” from Syria, referring to US troops whose existence is acknowledged by the Pentagon, as opposed to covert units who do not dress in American military uniforms.

Using Title 50 forces, however, could raise more legal questions about the US administration’s legal authorization for fighting in Syria — depending on whom they're fighting.

“If they’re targeting [the Islamic State], they can still rely” on the 2001 congressional authorization to battle terrorism, said Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But if they were trying to expand their efforts to Iran and the [Bashar al-Assad] regime, that would raise all sorts of questions about what they could do.”

Know more: Pompeo told reporters that the United States still seeks “a unified Syria” and to curb Russian and Iranian influence in the country. Learn more from Pentagon correspondent Jack Detsch about UN-backed efforts supported by the Trump administration to rewrite Syria’s constitution and hold new elections, which flailed in December.

- Jack Detsch

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