Syria and Turkey have established a joint safe-zone on the Syrian-Turkish border, meant to address Turkey’s national security concerns. This will result in the clearing of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) near the Turkish border. This news comes after much pressure from Turkey’s President Erdogan on the United States to do something about their continued support for the YPG in the fight against ISIS. Before the safe zone was agreed upon, a road map was drafted in 2018 as a means of withdrawing the YPG from Manbij in northern Syria. This was never accomplished, so the safe zone was agreed upon as a way to ease tensions in the Turkey-U.S.-YPG triangle. According to the Daily Sabah, the Kurdish administration said that the YPG was “pulling forces and heavy weapons from the rural areas of the region in line with the plan.” Regardless, Erdogan insisted that if the United States did not collaborate with Turkey on efforts to diminish YPG influence on the border, Turkey would have no choice but to “set out on its own,” according to The Washington Post.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, “We are speaking about an ally who cannot act independently from the terror organization,” in reference to the U.S. “While on one side, it is taking cosmetic steps with us, on the other side, it is strengthening its engagement with [Syrian Kurdish fighters]”.
On the other hand, General Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Kurdish militia labelled the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), stated, “We know that the Americans are addressing Turkish concerns” about border security. In return, the Kurds want “coordination that will be beneficial for all sides.”
Regardless, Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said, “Turkey could be a spoiler of U.S. policy regarding Iran, Iraq, Syria and ISIS, or it could be a facilitator.”
I believe the United States made a smart diplomatic choice within this very heated rivalry between Erdogan and the Kurds. If this safe-zone does go on as intended, it could mean fewer Syrian refugees fleeing conflict and a stabilization of relations between the United States and Turkey. Fortunately, 3,000 Syrians have left Turkey and returned to their liberated towns in Syria since the withdrawal from these towns by the YPG in August. Turkey has been putting the U.S. in a very difficult situation due to their disdain for the alliance between the Kurds and the U.S. If Trump chooses to maintain the bargain and play the part of mediator in securing Turkey’s borders, this may be the end of much fighting on the Syrian border and an increased focus on fighting ISIS, by both the U.S. and the YPG. Above all, it seems that the YPG and U.S. forces are concentrated on the object of the conflict – defeating ISIS – while Turkish forces continue their own personal fight against the YPG.
The U.S. and Turkey have been longtime allies and members of NATO. While they have good relations, the Syrian War has tested their limits for a variety of reasons. Primarily, President Erdogan has labelled the YPG a terrorist organization because they are an offset of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). The PKK, a left-wing militant and political group started in 1978, was accused of attempting a coup against Erdogan in 2016, thus increasing tensions between Kurds and Erdogan. However, as fighting in Syria heightened, the U.S. looked to the YPG for support. This angered Turkish leaders because at face value, it seemed that their longtime ally was betraying them by helping the very group they’re attempting to combat. Moreover, fighting with the YPG became increasingly devastating on the Turkish-Syrian border. During Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish forces viciously attacked YPG forces in the city of Afrin and took over the already ISIS-cleared city. This has been an ongoing struggle to prevent any YPG influence from reaching Turkey and its borders.
Overall, I am surprised the U.S. took the middle ground in this situation and is acting in a way that is beneficial to Syrian refugees above all. While the disdain between the YPG and Turkish forces remain, the safe zone is one less opportunity for confrontation between the two groups. Hopefully, Erdogan is satisfied with the deal and does not instruct the Turkish military to keep acting aggressively towards the YPG as they attempt to eradicate ISIS from Syria.
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