Kurdish fighters attend the funeral of a Syrian Democratic Forces fighter in the town of Tal Tamr in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province on December 21. Observers say the planned withdrawal of American forces from Syria will put Kurdish fighters in Turkey's crosshairs. Photo: AFP
Kurdish fighters attend the funeral of a Syrian Democratic Forces fighter in the town of Tal Tamr in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province on December 21, 2018. Photo: AFP

The United States military, desperate to avoid an open confrontation between its NATO ally and Kurdish clients, has capitulated in a game of chicken with Ankara, agreeing to an occupation zone across northern Syria.

The announced agreement comes just weeks after US lawmakers threatened Turkey with sanctions over its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. By threatening an imminent attack on the Kurdish YPG militia – America’s ally against ISIS – Ankara appears to have obtained a green light for a US-shepherded seizure of Syrian territory.

The so-called “peace corridor” is expected to span the entire region east of the Euphrates River, stretching 460 kilometers, according to Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu. It will also go 32 kilometers deep into Syrian territory, putting Kurdish-held towns like Kobane – seized from ISIS in 2015 – under Turkish authority.

A statement by the US Embassy in Turkey said the agreement included the establishment of a “joint operations center in Turkey” in order to set up the zone, though it did not offer details on the size of the area or how the Pentagon plans to deal with its Kurdish allies of the past six years.

“The safe zone shall become a peace corridor, and every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country,” the embassy said.

The statement suggests that the area will become a dumping ground for Syrian refugees, who are currently facing an unprecedented crackdown in Turkey, including forced deportations.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry called the US-Turkish accord “blatant aggression against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic and a flagrant violation of the principles of international law and the UN Charter.” There was no indication, however, that Damascus was prepared to send troops into the fray.

Doomed deal

The US blessing for a Turkish zone of influence across northern Syria came after Ankara threatened to invade unilaterally in order to rid the area of the YPG – the sister group of Turkey’s blacklisted Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.

“We entered Afrin, Jarabulus, and Al-Bab [in northern Syria], and now we’re going to enter east of the Euphrates,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said August 4, alluding to the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations of the past three years, which resulted in de-facto annexation of those Syrian towns.

It is unclear how the new, purported agreement with Washington will avert open conflict.

“What I see is the United States making a last attempt to prevent Turkey from taking a unilateral step,” said Mutlu Civiroglu, an analyst focusing on Kurdish affairs. “It’s an effort to gain some time, like in a soccer game.” 

Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, echoed those comments. “The entire plan now is to keep on giving the Turks some wins that can hold off an invasion,” he said. 

The gap between the two governments remains vast.

While Ankara aims to seize full control of the YPG-held areas along its border, the Kurds are pressing for an international force to oversee any proposed safe zone, according to a July 31 International Crisis Group (ICG) report.

“Washington can protect the YPG or strengthen its ties with Turkey, but it cannot do both,” the ICG said.

Should the Kurds find themselves exposed to Turkish attack, they will likely redeploy forces from areas vulnerable to an ISIS resurgence, which in the US view risks wiping out gains of the years-long campaign.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Kurdish forces have worked to avert confrontation with Assad’s forces. They were equally skeptical of the opposition, which was quickly dominated by Islamist factions – some of whom now operate as mercenaries in the service of Turkey.

Over the course of the conflict, the Kurdish YPG repeatedly clashed with Islamist factions, most notably ISIS. That war effort gained them the air support of the United States, which continues to operate alongside the Kurds in northeastern Syria – much to its ally Turkey’s chagrin.

It is unlikely that Marxist Kurdish guerrillas will accept the deal without a fight and succumb to rule by Turkish troops and their Syrian allies.

Afrin model

The fate of the towns to be included in the Turkish “peace corridor” will likely mirror that of other regions annexed by Turkey and its allies in the northern countryside of Aleppo.

Those areas included the Kurdish-majority town of Afrin and its surrounding villages, seized more than a year ago. The takeover carved out a safe haven for tens of thousands of defeated rebels and their families, while displacing half the local population.

Afrin this season shipped its most famed product, olive oil, from its vast orchards to Turkey, whose authorities insist they must prevent the profits from falling into the hands of the ousted PKK.

Schools now enforce gender segregation, Turkish flags fly over public buildings and portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hang in shops, according to residents interviewed by Asia Times.

The battle for Afrin was relatively quick, as it was isolated from other Kurdish-held areas. But the proposed “peace corridor” includes hundreds of kilometers of contiguous YPG-held territory. US troops are still deployed in the area, though their presence has been significantly reduced.

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