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Elusive US-Turkey deal over Syrian safe zone complicated by S-400 crisis Open in fullscreen

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel

Elusive US-Turkey deal over Syrian safe zone complicated by S-400 crisis

The S400 missile crisis has sparked a diplomatic spat [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 August, 2019

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Comment: A spat between the United States and Turkey over Ankara's purchase of Russia's S-400 missile has spilled into Syria, writes Bashdar Ismaeel.

After months of dithering and negotiations, Ankara and Washington remain at an impasse on the proposed safe zone covering Kurdish controlled areas in north-eastern Syria.

Central to the bitter fallout between Turkey and the United States (US) is the fate of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces who make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The SDF have been vital US partners on the ground in the battle against the Islamic state (IS) but are viewed by Turkey as no more than an extension of the PKK.

This has placed the US in a tough position. How can the US secure what they describe as legitimate security concerns of their Turkish allies and yet protect their Kurdish partners at the same time?

Maintaining this difficult, if not impossible, balance is the very reason why after further intense discussions in recent weeks between Turkish government officials and US officials, led by US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey, the prospect of a workable solution to the safe zone issue appears as a remote as ever.

The Turkish-US standoff over the SDF, as well as safe zones, is the tip of an iceberg that has seen relations cool in recent years

It is no coincidence that as the talks headed towards a dead-end, Turkey embarked on another mass mobilisation of forces on the Syrian border whilst the SDF intensified defensive fortifications. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu lambasted the latest US proposals over the safe zone as "not at all satisfactory" whilst warning that Turkish patience was wearing thin.

Turkey has previously launched Operation Euphrates Shield in 2017 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018 and is determined to remind Washington that a third operation can commence at any time.

'Tip of the iceberg'

The Turkish-US standoff over the SDF, as well as safe zones, is the tip of an iceberg that has seen relations cool in recent years. Turkey has played cards of its own against its traditional western ally with an outreach to Moscow, culminating in the contentious decision to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

Washington has long warned its NATO ally against procuring the S-400 with threats of sanctions and removal of Turkey from the F-35 programme.

However, as deliveries of the first phase of the S-400 continue to trickle into Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called Washington’s bluff.

Although, US President Donald Trump has reluctantly accepted Turkey's withdrawal from the F35 programme, he remains hesitant to sign-off on sanctions that some members of Congress desire under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act that would further damage relations with Turkey.

In fact, contrary to imposing sanctions, Trump continues to dangle the carrot of a free trade agreement if Turkey dismantles the S-400.

Now, the issue of safe zones, joint military programs and S-400 have become intertwined. Part of the reason why the resolution over the safe zones has dragged on is that both parties want to see how the S-400 stand-off will unfold. 

No American compromise without Turkish concessions

Simply put, Washington cannot grant concessions to Turkey without a tangible benefit in return.

Whilst the IS threat remains in Syria, it is the Turkish threat to invade that has meant that Washington has kept the bulk of the forces that Trump controversially decided he would withdraw in Dec 2018, leading to high-profile resignations at the time.

For the US, as things stand, succumbing to Turkish demands over the safe zone would be tantamount to giving Ankara the keys to northern Syria. Especially so when considering the swaths of territory that Turkey already controls around the towns of Afrin and al-Bab.

Finding a realistic compromise over the safe zone is difficult for a number of reasons, not least, what would be the size of the zone and who would control it? What would be fate of the YPG and SDF forces in that zone?

Direct Turkish enforcement of the zone, as Ankara demands, would mean that many of the key Kurdish towns such as Kobani, Tell Abyad and Ain Issa would be under the firm hands of Turkey

These issues have complicated the implementation of the Manbij roadmap, agreed previously between Ankara and Washington, let alone over the much larger Tell Abyad-Kobani-Ain Issa axis.

Direct Turkish enforcement of the zone, as Ankara demands, would mean that many of the key Kurdish towns such as Kobani, Tell Abyad and Ain Issa would be under the firm hands of Turkey, a prospect that Kurdish forces find difficult to stomach.

Moreover, Turkish control would certainly entail Free Syrian Army (FSA) presence in the safe zone, adding to Kurdish objections.

The SDF also remain hesitant to relinquish heavy weapons or move too far away from the demarcation line of any safe zone as they would be vulnerable to future Turkish attacks.

The risk of tit-for-tat

The only logical solution is a US-EU force to patrol and control the cease-fire line in the buffer zone, but this would require a sizable and long-term force that neither Washington nor their European allies seem willing to commit.

If an agreement over the safe zone continues to falter, the fate of any Turkish military incursion will hinge on the appetite of the US forces to protect the Kurds. And Turkey would almost certainly need considerable air support in any operation where the US controls the skies.

Trump and other defence officials have previously vowed to protect their Kurdish partners with Trump even threatening in a tweet in January to "devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds". However, it remains to be seen if US would risk confrontation with Turkey or a new quagmire that would suck in the same US forces that Trump vowed to remove.

The next moves over the safe zone or any unilateral Turkish incursion may also hinge on potential US retaliation for the Turkish S-400 deployment. If Washington goes through with sanctions that would damage an already fragile Turkish economy, Erdogan is unlikely to sit idle.

The next moves over the safe zone or any unilateral Turkish incursion may also hinge on potential US retaliation for the Turkish S-400 deployment

Erdogan defiantly warned in recent days, "We are determined to shatter the terror corridor east of the Euphrates, no matter how the negotiations with the US to establish a safe zone along the Syrian borders concludes".  

Meanwhile, he warned last week that "I hope the US will act reasonably" underscoring that he would not allow “injustices” be done to the country over the S-400 deal. 

The S-400 was somewhat of a victory over NATO for Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who would waste no time in offering Turkey state of the art Russian fighters jets and increased military cooperation. 

Conversely, if US staves off sanctions, that could be used as a card to bring Ankara to a more flexible position over the SDF and safe zones.

Either way, the onset of safe zones must be a means to an ends. Such an arrangement cannot last forever without a permanent political deal between all sides which incorporates a wider resolution to the Syrian conflict.

US has tried to encourage backdoor talks between Turkey and the SDF in recent months but any breakthrough, however unlikely, is linked to the PKK issue in Turkey.

A product of the US manoeuvring in the background was evident as Turkey recently allowed statements from imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Of note was Ocalan's message for SDF to recognise Turkish security sensitivities.

The next moves are plagued with risks for each side, and can either end up with an unprecedented compromise to soothe all sides, or a point of no return that would devastate Ankara-Washington relations and introduce a new phase of bloodshed.


Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

Follow him on Twitter: @BashdarIsmaeel

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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