Erdogan's safe zone will be anything but for Syria's Kurds
Twice in as many months, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has forced Donald Trump to back a policy without the US president fully comprehending the consequences of doing so.
The first time came in a December 14 telephone conversation about northern Syria. The Turkish leader asked Mr Trump: “Why are you still there?” In response, Mr Trump quickly agreed to the withdrawal of American troops, astonishing White House experts, who were looped in on the call.
The second came in mid-January, amid growing concern in Washington about what might happen after the withdrawal, especially in relation to Syrian Kurds, who have been staunch US allies in the fight against ISIS.
Initially, Mr Trump tweeted that he would “devastate” Turkey's economy if the Kurds were attacked.
The following day, Mr Erdogan spoke to Mr Trump and offered up a “safe zone” as a compromise. Mr Trump apparently accepted, tweeting that he had discussed a 20-mile safe zone with Turkey's president.
But what Mr Erdogan means by a safe zone and what Mr Trump understands are likely to be very different things. Turkey's offer in northern Syria is not what it appears.
The day after the two leaders spoke, and with little detail on the safe zone coming out of Washington, Mr Erdogan – perhaps borrowing from Mr Trump's playbook of announcing policy before it is fully agreed – spoke to his parliament, telling its members that Mr Trump was “positive”, and that, if the US offered financial support, Turkey would create the area. In other words, in the spirit of that great pledge of Mr Trump’s, Turkey would build the wall, and America would pay for it.
One of the great difficulties of present-day US foreign policy that Mr Trump has no time for details and views complex matters in only the most simplistic terms. A “safe zone”, he may have assumed, since it was offered in the context of concerns about the Kurds, would naturally keep the Syrian Kurds on the border safe. In fact, the opposite is true.
Speaking in Istanbul yesterday, Mr Erdogan was explicit: a safe zone would be administered by Turkey and would be a place to which Syrian refugees can return.
Turkey is already doing something similar across parts of northern Syria. Towns such as Al Bab and Jarabulus are connected to the Turkish electricity and postal systems and are thriving, with Turkish businesses operating and hospitals and schools reopened. Mr Erdogan has said that 300,000 Syrians who were formerly refugees in Turkey have returned, mainly to these areas.
For the US, any safe zone must protect the Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have fought ISIS alongside US troops. But those fighters are mainly from the Kurdish People's Protection Unit (YPG), which Turkey says is a terror group, allied with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) inside Turkey.
Speaking to parliament after his initial phone call with Mr Trump, Mr Erdogan said any safe zone would exclude YPG fighters. But a week later, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told the Turkish foreign secretary Mevlut Cavusoglu that they must be protected.
This will be the heart of the negotiation, but Turkey has a simple ploy to get its way: it can simply declare that there will be no armed Kurds in the safe zone. Few YPG members would be willing to live unarmed under the protection of Turkish forces.
By maintaining ambiguity and confining negotiations to the space between what he means and what Mr Trump thinks he means, Mr Erdogan is likely to be able to achieve his twin objectives – making the US believe that he is protecting Syrian Kurds, while actually creating a zone to which he can relocate Syrian refugees, and push the armed YPG away from the Turkish border.
All the other players in the Syrian civil war appear to have grasped immediately what Turkey is offering.
A few days after the possibility of a safe zone was mooted, Mr Erdogan met Vladimir Putin in Moscow for a crucial summit. While the two men agreed on many things, they were divided on the issue of the safe zone, though their words need careful parsing.
Russia appears comfortable only with a “buffer zone” on the Turkey-Syria border, and only in the context of temporarily stabilising the area after US troops leave and – crucially – before Syrian forces move in. On that, Russia is clear: the area is part of “the Syrian state”.
This fault line between the two positions will – once words become boots on the ground, military checkpoints and population transfers – only widen.
Moscow has never changed its view that Syria's territorial integrity must be preserved. At the summit, Mr Putin said Russia supported dialogue between the Syrian regime and Kurdish representatives. Secession by the Syrian Kurds or annexation by Turkey is not something it can accept.
Russia does not want a safe zone, because it would remove territory from the regime. And the Kurds, ultimately, will decide against one, because it will make them subservient to Turkey.
Indeed, the Kurds, sensing that the tide turning against them, are not waiting to see what happens. As soon as the withdrawal of US troops was announced in December, the Kurds reopened dialogue with the Assad regime. One senior Kurdish leader, in Washington for talks this week, told the US media that if “cornered into choosing between” Turkey or Damascus, “we would go with the regime”.
In the White House, the lack of clarity about what the safe zone truly entails remains. By the time its ramifications are finally grasped, it may be too late to stop Mr Erdogan's plan.
Updated: January 29, 2019 06:24 PM