US eyes buffer zone on Syria border to protect YPG
Turkish and U.S. delegations will hold key talks on Jan. 8 in Ankara to discuss a host of issues related to the United States’ decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
The U.S. team will be led by U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton and will include U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffrey and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, along with other military and civilian officials.
They will meet İbrahim Kalın, the chief foreign policy advisor of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal, and Chief of Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler.
It will be the first in-person meeting between the two countries’ officials after Trump announced the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria on Dec. 19, after a number of phone calls exchanged between Ankara and Washington.
The mood in Washington since Dec. 19 seems to be different about the timing and the scope of this withdrawal. Trump is no longer talking about an immediate process despite first suggesting that he wanted U.S. troops back home no later than 60 days. He now says he never mentioned any timetable for the withdrawal, saying the process will be slow and cover a period of time.
He has also vowed to protect the Kurds in Syria whilst complaining that they sell oil to Iran. Trump’s statement came a few days after Senator Lindsay Graham had described Kurds in Syria as the ally of the U.S., which later drew Ankara’s reaction.
Washington has deliberately begun using the words “Kurds” instead of the YPG or even the SDF in a bid to ease concerns expressed by many internal and external critics of the withdrawal decision.
However, a heavier blow came from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in an interview with the Newsmax said, “The importance of ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds, the protection of religious minorities there in Syria. All of those things are still part of the American mission set.”
This characterization by Pompeo is, of course, unacceptable for Ankara and would potentially create new tension between Turkey and the U.S. Turkish officials have always made the distinction between the YPG/PKK and other Kurds by pointing out that these groups do not represent all Kurds in Syria.
However, Pompeo’s remarks put bluntly that the U.S. regards any potential military action by the Turkish army into eastern Syria as an offensive aiming at “slaughtering Kurds” and therefore signals tough talks with Turkey next week.
The problem here is how the U.S. will protect the YPG, or, in their terminology, the Kurds? One frequently mentioned solution is to establish a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border to keep the YPG away from the Turkish border.
This idea is nothing new but it seems getting more doable in the eyes of the U.S. The thing is, will Turkey accept that and to what extent this fresh row over “the protection of Kurds” will affect Ankara-Washington ties as well as their prospected coordination in the fight against ISIL?
Too many questions remain unanswered and there are no clues as to whether they all can be resolved next week.