Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced this week his plans to create a “safe zone” in northeast Syria, with the apparent approval of U.S. President Donald Trump. Erdogan hopes to oust the Syrian-Kurdish militia known as the YPG – America’s main local partner against the Islamic State – from the Turkish border region, yet the U.S. aims to protect the YPG from a potential Turkish offensive.
Ankara considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization due to the group’s ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terror group in Turkey and the U.S. The Turkish military carried out two military operations in Syria aimed at uprooting the YPG, first in 2016 and then in 2018. Since late October, it has been planning a third operation, which the U.S. has sought to fend off by holding joint-patrols with the YPG and setting up observation posts along the Turkish frontier.
Ankara only postponed its impending operation in December in response to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the region. Since then, Washington has tried to dissuade Turkey from attacking the YPG, with Trump even threatening to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit the Kurds.” Yet during a January 14 phone call, Erdogan appeared to reach an agreement with Trump for a 20-mile safe zone in northern Syria. Erdogan said the two leaders had reached an “understanding of historical importance,” while Trump tweeted his approval and backed away from his earlier threat. Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether the two leaders agree on what they mean by a safe zone and who would be responsible for administering it.
After the Trump-Erdogan call, Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu Agency published a map of the zone consisting of a 32-kilometer (20-mile)-deep region spanning the entire Turkish-Syrian border to the east of the Euphrates River. The map was an expanded version of an earlier one, published in October, which had depicted a 20-kilometer (12.5-mile)-deep strip from the Euphrates to the nearby town of Kobane. Turkey’s apparent plan for the zone entails its seizure from the YPG by the Turkish military and Ankara’s Syrian rebel proxies, with the help of U.S. airpower. Ultimately, it wants to transfer to the zone a portion of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees that have been residing in Turkey.
While hoping that Washington will restrain Erdogan, the YPG has also turned to Moscow and Damascus for protection. Russian military police have already begun patrols near the town of Manbij, where U.S. soldiers are also stationed, and the YPG is now seeking a broader deal with the Syrian regime to secure Kurdish territories from a Turkish attack and preserve a degree of political autonomy. For his part, Erdogan is also vying for Russian support for his safe zone, and is set to meet with President Vladimir Putin next week.
While Trump appears ready to trust Erdogan with the implementation of the safe zone, a Turkish attack against the YPG risks destabilizing northern Syria and strengthening the hands of Moscow and Damascus. To secure the gains from the fight against the Islamic State, and to prevent Russia from dictating the fate of Syria, the United States must reach an agreement with Turkey that protects its Kurdish partners and provides assurances to Ankara that the YPG presence near Turkey’s Syrian border will not benefit the PKK.
Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.