The agreement came after the Turkish military intensified its movements on the country’s borders with northern Syria, amassed its forces there, and threatened to attack the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), seen by Ankara as the branch of the PKK and labeled a terrorist group. The strong tone was met by the opposition of the US which is the key international ally to the Syrian Kurds and at the same time forced Washington to sit and talk with Turkey. After several rounds of talks, the two sides on August 7 reached a deal based on which a safe zone will be established to be used as the so-called safety corridor for the Syrian refugees returning home. They also agreed to set a joint operation command for coordination on the corridor establishment.
A couple of days ago, Turkey said that they have begun to implement the deal. On Saturday, Turkey’s Defense Minister General Hulusi Akar said some information provided by the Americans note that the YPG has started withdrawal from the marked zone. He, however, said that Turkey wants official confirmation to the information. He added that 4 helicopters, two Turkish and two American, have conducted two-hour reconnaissance flights over the would-be safe zone in the north.
Since last Tuesday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia coalition with majorly Kurdish fighters, as well as the YPG began moving back from the Turkish borders within 5 to 15 kilometers, including their Kobani canton’s border stations. Mustafa Bali, the spokesman to the SDF said that the retreat comes in compliance with the US-Turkey agreement.
Although Turkey has been given assurances about Kurdish fighters’ pullout and implementation of the accord, the Turkish officials still insist on their formerly-held positions and threaten to launch a unilateral operation against the Kurds.
On Saturday, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in comments on the safe zone said that he will not agree to a plan other than Turkish military control over the safe zone. He warned that if in the coming weeks Turkey’s military does not openly hold control of the northern Syrian regions, Ankara will implement its unilateral plan. On the other side, Akar implied that Turkey still doubted the US adherence to its commitments, adding that Turkey wanted to see the “full Kurdish withdrawal” from the zone for itself.
Syrian government objection
Erdogan’s efforts in the camp of Syria allies, mainly the Russians, to get them in line with his project seems to have come to fruition as last week during the talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin tacitly agreed with the Turkish plan. But the Syrian government, as the legitimate reference on the Syrian territorial sovereignty, has continuously opposed the Turkish measures on the Syrian soil, calling them the blatant instance of occupation.
Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian president’s advisor, commented on Erdogan’s remarks about Syria’s recent developments, saying that “water will disclose the lies of the swimmer.” She went on that Erdogan has some greed in Syria and Iraq and is in field contacts with the terrorist groups, adding: “At the end of the road, the Turkish army will compulsorily leave Syria.” She continued that no meeting was held between Syria and Turkey on the sidelines of last week’s Erdogan-Putin summit in Moscow. “Turkey is not sincere about the de-escalation of tensions in Syria. Erdogan will have to leave the occupied parts of Syria and this decision is ours not him.”
Erdogan during a ceremony on Friday at the presidential palace in Ankara said that Turkey holds no territorial ambitions in any country but at the same time will not fall short in responding to the threats.
Erdogan’s assurances about not having territorial and military ambitions in Syria did not receive much acceptance. But his foreign minister on the same day contradicted him. Mevlut Cavusoglu at a meeting with his Norwegian counterpart said that as long as a comprehensive political solution is not found to the Syrian crisis, Turkey keeps its forces in the war-ravaged country. His comments appear to disclose Turkey’s long-term plans to stay in Syria.
Turkey’s army during Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch military operations in 2016 and 2018, assisted with the allied terrorist militias, occupied some 4,000 square kilometers of Syrian territory including Azaz, Jarabulus, and Afrin towns in the north.
US-Turkey’s conflicting objectives behind the safe zone
Washington-Ankara safe zone agreement could ease their rows that have been brewing over the past few years, but due to their conflict of goals behind the buffer zone, this agreement should be considered temporary and is far from being able to prevent re-ignition of the fire under the ashes of Turkey-Kurds relations.
This can be observed in Erdogan’s comments. On Saturday, he said that “we took some steps with Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. As they fail to commit to their promises regarding Manbij, our security worries grow bigger. We are talking to America. The developments taking place under the concept of the safe zone show that there is a great distance between us and America.”
In the first place, Turkey seeks to quell the threat of the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria’s north. The safe zone will provide Ankara with the chance to settle Arab Syrian refugees in the north for a demographic change. It seems that the plan that was implemented in Afrin by Turkey is also intended for implementation in Eastern Euphrates regions. Turkey demanded a buffer zone with 23-kilometer depth and free from YPG, heavy American weapons, Kurdish bases.
The case is different when it comes to the US. Washington wants a region with 10 kilometers of depth and not exclusively held by the Turkish forces. It also wants to save the Kurdish identity in the north as pressure tool against Ankara and Damascus. After all, it regards the Kurds as bargaining chips in any Syria future negotiations. When earlier this year Trump said he was removing his forces from Syria, bipartisan voices in the Congress pressed the White House to stay in the Arab country and continue providing the Kurds with support in the face of Turkey.