On Wednesday, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced that they were ready to assist in the establishment of a so-called “safe zone” in Northeastern Syria. This declaration followed a tweet issued by the U.S. President, Donald Trump, on Sunday. The President suggested the creation of a safe zone along the Turkish border. Reuters reports that SDF led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has said that such a zone must have “international guarantees…[ ] that would prevent foreign intervention.” This is an apparent reference to neighboring Turkey, with whom Kurdish militant groups have engaged in armed conflict for decades. The Kurdish attempt to take the lead in establishing a safe zone may therefore best be seen as an attempt to insure against further Turkish incursion into Syria and Kurdish held provinces. This fear has grown particularly acute as Trump announced his intentions to withdraw U.S. troops out of Syria, thereby leaving a power vacuum.
Trump sought to quell these Kurdish concerns with his usual bluster. As his Sunday tweet read, “[we] will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20-mile safe zone… [ ] Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey.” Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reacted strongly to this message, telling his Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he had been “sadden by some of the messages from Mr. Trump’s social media account.” As far as the notion of a Kurdish patrolled safe-zone, President Erdogan was unsurprisingly dismissive, “They are terrorists. Can we leave the safe zone to terrorists?” On their part, the Kurds remain resolute. The co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose armed wing is the YPG, stated last week that Kurdish fighters “were getting ready to confront Turkish threats through resistance.” Of course, Turkey is not the only other major player the U.S. must contend with in Syria. Russia too is displeased with the idea of a Kurdish enforced safe zone, maintaining that the Syrian military should police the countries’ border instead.
Despite President Trump’s claim that the Islamic State has been defeated, and indeed its power base is nowhere near what it once was, Syria remains in ruin, torn on all sides by global and regional powers seeking control. The notion of a safe zone seems to be a promising step towards ending hostilities in the region. However, without the stabilizing presence of American hegemony, conflict is almost certain. The conflict between the Kurdish people and Turkey is too deep to simply be placated by proverbial lines in the sand. Instead, the threat of the U.S. retribution must remain salient if a safe zone is to have any sort of meaningful clout. Peace in the Middle East is elusive and can only be obtained through what may seem to be counter-intuitive measures. The largely fictitious borders drawn in the Imperial age, though naturalized somewhat through time and political process, remain largely subservient to existing regional realities. Syria is a prime example of the consequence of such a practice, as its people have known both authoritarian oppression and the chaos of war. Having achieved what is currently a new level of stability, the U.S. must not render the declaration of a safe zone meaningless. Support for the Kurdish led SDF will certainly anger Turkey and Russia, but the current state of politics in both of these nations must be remembered, as the strongmen, Erdogan and Putin, both tighten their respective clamps. Still, the Kurds also have wrought violence in the past, and the U.S. must, therefore, resist the lure of ending engagement in Syria and remain as a moderator of potential conflict.
The Kurds have long desired to carve an independent nation out of Eastern Turkey and parts of Syria and Iraq. Since the 1980s, Kurdish insurgents have clashed with the Turkish military, a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since it began largely at the hands of the Turks. The European Human Rights Council has condemned Turkey in this regard for its systematic executions, forced disappearances, and destruction of Kurdish villages. Due to the extremity of violence, tensions remain high to this day, and allowing armed Turkish and Kurdish units to exist in such close proximity without a guiding presence will only invite conflict.
Overall, a safe-zone along Syria’s Northeastern border only seems tenable as an assurance of peace if the United States remains to guarantee its enforcement. If this is not the case, a safe-zone is likely to only produce conflict among groups who have had tensions simmering for decades. The U.S. cannot leave behind a power-vacuum as it withdraws itself from the Middle East. Rather, peace will only be possible if a managed political and military system is put into place.
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