The forces of the Syrian regime are gaining ground in southern Idlib province and have already retaken the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun. But in the north, Turkey is still pressing on with its plan for a border zone. Last weekend, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced that the Turkish-American joint operations center would be up and running this week. The Pentagon has already sent a military delegation to Urfa, Turkey, the likely location for the new headquarters.
The United States agreed to help set up the safe zone after Turkey threatened to attack Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates at the start of this month. Officially, few of the countries bound up in the Syrian civil war are in favor of it. Unofficially, they realize it could be more useful than not, even if only temporarily.
What precisely this “safe zone” will look like remains a mystery, however. Turkey’s vision of it stretches from Ayn al-Arab, just east of the Euphrates, all the way to the Iraqi border. The US has not defined its vision, but it is believed to cover only a short stretch of Turkey’s border with Syria.
From the Turkish perspective, it is not so much a safe zone as a buffer zone, keeping armed Syrian Kurds away from the entire border region. Turkey’s grievance has long been that Syrian Kurdish militias have links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party terror group inside Turkey. A buffer such as this one, if put in place, would seriously weaken the ability of Syrian Kurds to defend themselves. Others, however, have no problem with that and especially not the Syrian government, which has repeatedly stated its determination to reclaim all Syrian territory and proved it with the recent brutal assaults on Idlib, the last province outside government control.
But the sequence of events is pertinent. If Turkey had carried out the threat to attack the Syrian Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates, that would have benefited Damascus, as the Kurds would have been forced to seek help from the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The buffer zone, therefore, creates another opportunity. For one, Kurds who have been driven away from the border would be natural allies of the Assad regime in seeking to reclaim their lands. The government could plausibly bargain with the Kurds, perhaps retaking the oilfields in the east of the country, where Kurds have little connection, in return for aiding the Kurds in retaking their towns along the border.
There could be more long-term benefits, too. The demographics of northeast Syria are complicated; although Syrian Kurds form the majority in some major towns, the overall population is mostly Syrian Arab. The Assad regime, both father and son, has always been wary of Syrian Kurdish links with Kurdish communities across the border in Turkey. If Turkey’s plan pushes the Kurds away from the border and creates an area to which hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees can be returned, it would weaken the Kurds overall, because Arabs would dominate the local administrations and would want at least cordial relations with the Syrian regime to facilitate travel to see family in the rest of Syria.
Let’s not forget that the Syrian state still runs some basic infrastructure in the region – the power supply, schools, telephone networks and airports. The Assad regime will certainly try to take back the regions occupied by Turkey in the future. But for now, especially with Idlib still not fully under government control, a border zone is tolerable.
That is also true for Russia. Again, officially, Russia would prefer there to be no foreign soldiers on Syrian soil. Technically, Russia and Iran are the only foreign powers that have a legitimate right to be there, since they were invited in by the Syrian government. But Russia is also conscious of its own position.
In the economic sphere, Russia and Iran are rivals; both want reconstruction contracts in Syria. But Russia’s position is weaker since, unlike Iran, Moscow constantly has to balance its relations with Syria with its relations with Israel, meaning Damascus could well sideline Moscow once the rebel threat within Syria is dealt with. So a long-term Turkish presence on the border would cement Russia’s alliance with the Syrian regime, which does not have the ability – for the moment – to face Turkey alone.
Even for the United States, the border plan is manageable. Ostensibly, the US and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces are allies. Yet every time Turkey has threatened a war along the border, as it did last year over Kurdish militias operating in the town of Manbij, the US has backed down and set aside its alliance with the Kurds. The same thing appears to have happened this time.
Strategically, this is a mistake. The only piece of leverage the US has over the Assad regime is its support for the Kurds. Once they have been removed from the border, Damascus will be stronger.
Politically, it’s a different story, however. Washington under President Donald Trump is disengaging from the region and even if the Pentagon may prefer to maintain a more long-term presence on the Turkey-Syria border, Trump prefers the political victory of bringing the troops home. Joint patrols with Turkey will always mean a greater investment of resources from Ankara – after all, it is Turkey’s border. So Washington in effect outsources the border issue to its NATO ally, maintaining a token military contingent, while drawing down thousands of troops. The sidelining of the Kurds is probably a minor issue for Washington – at least until they are needed again.
Turkey’s border-zone plan has been pushed forward partly by threats of military force and partly because it is the only plausible plan in place. For Syria’s Kurds, it is an existential threat. For everyone else, it is something they can probably live with, for now.
This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.