Irreconcilable differences: why the US-Turkish accord over Syria might falter

Washington has stayed Ankara's hand for now - but their divergent interests could pose a problem

A Syrian Kurd walks during a protest and sit-in against Turkey, in the town of Ras al-Ain in Syria's Hasakeh province near the Turkish border on August 9, 2019, with the flags of Turkey seen across the border in the background.  / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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Last week Washington managed to prevent a large-scale Turkish incursion into Syria. Turkey had tens of thousands of troops by the border at the ready. Firebrand president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that an invasion was imminent East of the Euphrates in order to carve out a 30 to 40-kilometre safe zone deep into Syrian territory, which would be free of the US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG.

In order to stave off the Turkish intervention, a delegation of US defence officials made a trip to Turkey. Together with their Turkish counterparts, they agreed to set up a safe zone on the Syrian side of the border. They also decided to establish a joint operations centre based in Turkey and committed to a concerted effort to allow Syrian refugees to return to their homeland.

However, the wording of the arrangement was so vague that it can hardly be called an agreement. If anything, it is biding for time while the details get worked out. The fundamental issues that need to be addressed include the depth of the safe zone (the US says it should be no more than 10km but Ankara wants up to four times that), the nature of the joint operations centre, who administers the safe zone and whether the YPG will be disarmed. There also remain serious uncertainties about how exactly Syrian refugees would be repatriated and under what circumstances.

The problem is that on these matters Turkey and the US are not on the same page. Turkey is concerned about the possibility of contiguous Kurdish autonomy from the Iraqi-Iranian border stretching across Iraq and Syria and ending just shy of the Mediterranean Sea. Ankara fears that Kurdish ascendancy in these regions weakens its hand against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and emboldens the Kurdish nationalist movement within Turkey.

Ankara holds that the YPG, the armed wing of the Kurdish and leftist Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls much of the Kurdish north of Syria, known to Kurds as Rojava, is closely affiliated with the PKK. Turkey considers the PKK to be a terrorist group and has been at war with it since the 1980s.

Despite also being listed by the US as a terrorist group, Washington knows that the PKK poses no real threat to either the US or its interests abroad. Meanwhile, the YPG has been pivotal in the territorial defeat of ISIS, which remains a serious threat to the US and its allies. If Turkey were to invade Syria East of the Euphrates or have its way and set up a 30 to 40km-wide safe zone, it would mean that the YPG would redeploy its troops to the north, leaving areas such as Deir Ezzor and other areas to the east of Syria ripe for a resurgent ISIS.

Ankara has not hidden its desire to repatriate Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey to the proposed safe zone

Meanwhile, if the US were to stop supporting or de-arm the YPG, it would make the administering of areas under Kurdish control impossible and leave a vacuum that if not Turkey, then militant groups or the Assad regime will try to fill. This would only create further and needless violence and volatility. The areas under the control of the PYD have their problems but they are at least generally stable and relatively well-governed.

Ankara has not hidden its desire to repatriate Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey to the proposed safe zone. This is while Turkey cracks down on the 3.8 million Syrians living within its borders, whose stay is unpopular across the political divide. Popular opinion holds, unfairly, that Syrians have overstayed their welcome, especially as Turkey’s faces ever-increasing economic woes.

But such an attempt at forced repatriation, or at worse, demographic tampering, would be an unmitigated disaster. Repatriation is only feasible when security is guaranteed, stable government is present and when it is conducted on a voluntary basis. Also needed is a mechanism to ensure claims of property ownership or repatriation are genuine. Tampering with the demographic balance of Kurdish areas is dangerous and reminiscent of the dark periods of Baathist rule. It was shameful that there were reports after Turkish-backed forces invaded and captured Afrin in 2018 that some Syrian refugees living in Turkey were resettled in the enclave. This was while hundreds of thousands of Kurds were fleeing the area.

The US understands that this cannot be repeated and that is why Morgan Ortagus, the spokesperson of the State Department, stated categorically that the US does not support the coerced or forced relocation of refugees or displaced people in Syria, adding that only when “conditions allow” should refugees return but it must be ”voluntary, safe and dignified”.

The bottom line is that when it comes to arming the YPG, creating a safe zone and considering the future of Syrian refugees, the differences between Turkey and the US are simply too large to bridge. They highlight yet another example of how the interests of the US and Turkey continue to seem irreconcilable.

Dr Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London