Commentary in Annahar newspaper on the safe zone in northeast Syria

Annahar Premium – Jan. 19, 2019

Mr. George Issa, distinguished journalist in the Lebanese newspaper “Annahar”, posed to me two questions on the safe zone in northeast Syria, as follows:

Question nr. 1: May I ask you how could Erdoğan and Trump make a deal on the safe zone in Syria after the latter threatened to devastate the Turkish economy?

In spite of what Trump said in his remarks about the safe area and the warning directed to Ankara against the consequences of opening a war against the Kurdish militias in the Syrian east, it is certain that the Turkish-American talks will increase during the current phase. According to the information I own, an important tribal leader of the Arab groups in the East Euphrates region, Ahmed al-Jarba, visited Ankara with a delegation and met with senior officials of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. According to the source, the delegation came with a US-backed offer based on taking responsibility for the protection of the safe area, which extends from the border of the Euphrates River on the Syrian-Turkish border and even to the Malikya municipality in the northern part of the Syrian east close to the Iraqi border with a depth of 20 miles. This proposal was positively seen by Turkey, provided that it would deploy its own control points in this area. Despite this positive response from Turkey, Trump in a tweet threatened with economic sanctions. Trump sought to direct two messages, one to reassure the Kurds and their supporters from the Europeans and within Congress that he would not allow a Turkish military operation against the Kurdish militias in the region. The second message was directed to Turkey to not raise the ceiling of its demands and accept with is given to it. But the most important issue is what will happen next.

Turkey is dealing with the Syrian issue by solving them step by step and not as full package. The Kurdish militias have raised a request to Washington during the past two days confirming their refusal for the safe area because it includes the city of Qamishli, their future capital. Another problem is the future of the rest of the Syrian east. The recent statement by the Syrian Democratic Forces confirmed the failure of the talks with the Assad regime. Therefore, the proximity to what these militias see as their future is the formation of their own state within the borders of the Euphrates River and the southern part of the security zone. Certainly, Turkey is aware of the SDF views which exist on the table. If this finally happens, it will be with the implicit US support, European support under French leadership, and Israeli support. Will Ankara agree to this state away from its borders with the existence of the safe zone?

The answer is clear. Considering the Iraqi Kurdistan experience, it is total rejection. Despite the fact that the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan, especially Barzani was close to Ankara explicitly and despite the openness of economy and information provided by the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan and in particular intelligence information, which was the cause of weakening the strength and influence of the PKK in the mountains of Qandil and southeastern Turkey, Ankara did not agree to the independence of the territory and even moved its forces to prevent it and supported the intervention of Tehran and its Iraqi allies to stop it militarily. But the situation in Syrian Kurdish areas is more complicated and dangerous to Turkey. The Kurdish militias of Syria are the hand of the PKK which is the first enemy of Ankara, and the top leaders of these militias are directly wanted by it. Thus, in practice, the step to create a safe zone is a postponement of a future Kurdish-Turkish confrontation.

Question nr. 2: If we wanted to draw a comparison with Branson case, Erdoğan escalated the rhetoric against US in August. So why do you think that Turkish president chose to reduce the tensions this time?

At the moment, Erdoğan and his administration are trying to win a field victory before the local elections on March 31, and it is likely that the city of Manbij is the weakest part in the Turkish-American approach. It is likely that America will agree to satisfy Erdoğan by giving him a green light to enter Manbij. However, the obstacle to Turkey in the area is Moscow. According to local sources, Russia sent a battalion which entered the south of the city of Manbij and stationed in the village of Arima. That is why Erdoğan will meet with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, on the 23rd of this month to try to take a green light for this advance. Yet Moscow has another opinion. It is likely that the national road of Aleppo to Latakia will be used by Putin to try to hold a deal for Manbij in exchange for the south of Idlib.

In the last two years, Ankara has shown a high ability to dodge and preserve its interests without colliding with international players in the Syrian crisis. Based on these past experiences, Ankara is likely to be able to take what it wants, but gradually. The telephone call between Erdoğan and Trump one day after the threats for economic sanctions, confirms Erdoğan’s discomfort and Trump’s unwillingness to enter into a new crisis with Turkey.

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