US-Turkey talks on Syria intensify ahead of Erdogan’s meeting with Putin

US focused on finding an arrangement that would establish a Turkish safe zone on the border with Syria

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo

US talks with Turkey about a safe zone in Syria intensified this week before a highly anticipated trip by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow on Wednesday.

Following a visit by US Republican senator Lindsey Graham to Ankara at the weekend and a call between US President Donald Trump and Mr Erdogan on Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed up with another phone conversation on Monday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

According to the State Department “they discussed ongoing US-Turkish engagement as part of the deliberate and co-ordinated withdrawal of US forces from Syria”.

Washington “reiterated the commitment of the United States to addressing Turkish security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border, while emphasising the importance that the United State places on the protection of forces that worked with the United States and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS”.

American efforts are focused on finding a security and political arrangement that would both establish a Turkish safe zone on the border with Syria, and protect the Syrian Democratic Forces in the area.

The proposed zone, as both Ankara and Washington confirmed, would be 32 kilometres wide, and Ankara said that it would be policed and controlled by Turkey.

Speaking on Monday, Mr Erdogan revealed part of his conversation with the US president.

He said Mr Trump expected bilateral trade to go up to $75 billion (Dh275.4bn) a year – an incentive that the White House introduced to the Syrian withdrawal debate to win Turkey over.

Mr Erdogan expected the safe zone to include Manbij, which is now under SDF control.

“We will deliver Manbij to its real owners. We don’t have eyes on anybody’s land. Those who insistently want to keep us away from these regions are seeking to strengthen terror organisations,” he said.

The Turkish president showed readiness to help defeat ISIS in Syria, but said his country would need “US logistical support” to do so. In the past week, ISIS has attacked US forces in Syria twice, in Manbij and on Tuesday in Hassakeh.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham shake hands before a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. Graham has discussed the situation in Syria with Cavusoglu and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the United States prepares to withdraw troops.(Turkish Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP, Pool)
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and US Republican senator Lindsey Graham shake hands before a meeting in Ankara. AP

The phone calls and diplomatic chatter between the US and Turkey about Syria followed visits by National Security Adviser John Bolton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, US envoy against ISIS James Jeffrey and Syria co-ordinator Joel Rayburn to Ankara in the past three weeks.

Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Centre for New American Security, described a consistent effort by the US to seek Turkey’s help and coordination as Washington seeks to leave Syria.

“It’s no great secret that Trump's Syria team believes that the only pathway forward for the US is to strike a deal with Turkey,” Mr Heras said.

Mr Jeffrey's appointment last summer, a former US ambassador to Turkey who speaks Turkish, “highlighted that fact clearly and well before Mr Trump announced his intent withdraw on December 19”, Mr Heras said.

Since then, Turkey has released US pastor Andrew Brunson, and Washington cleared a tentative $3.5bn sale of Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Ankara.

When it comes to Syria, Mr Heras said “there is really no appetite on the US side to hand over America's zone in Syria to [President Bashar Al] Assad, and therefore Turkey is seen as the best option”.

There is no clear timetable for US withdrawal.


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Mr Heras said “giving the US zone to Russia is still viewed as giving it to the Assad regime, and there is a lot of angst within the US team that Putin can offer Erdogan a better deal than Mr Trump can, especially if the  Russians are willing to serve up the People's Protection Units [YPG] to Turkey on a silver platter, which the US military will not do”.

If Turkey and Russia strike a deal, for example “to swap Idlib to Moscow for hundreds of kilometres of border region east of the Euphrates for Ankara, it would be catastrophic for Trump's Syria team and would throw US planning to the wind,” Mr Heras argued.

“That is the American side's nightmare scenario now,” he said – and one driving the flood of calls between the Nato allies.

On Tuesday, Bret McGurk, the former US Special Presidential Envoy for Campaign to Defeat ISIS who resigned in December, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the campaign against the militant group in Syria was far from completed.

"This mission is not over, I do not think that there would be a single expert that would walk into the Oval Office and tell the president that this is over," Mr McGurk said. "This is why we always said the mission was the enduring defeat of ISIS, not just taking away the physical caliphate but getting the arrangements in place to make sure a vacuum will not open in its wake."

He urged the president to delay the order to withdraw US troops from Syria, saying that the US "threw away all of our leverage by announcing we’re leaving".

The former head of the anti-ISIS campaign said that by ordering the US to withdraw would make it very difficult to also achieve America's other objectives. Mr McGerk said America needs to "complete the ISIS campaign – which of course we want to do – keep the Russians and regime out of the territory we now influence, try to do some sort of engineering for Turkey to come in to replace us and a number of other things. That’s impossible to ask the few Americans on the ground to do so it’s really a mission impossible."