The Syria safe zone may not be as Turkey wanted

The Syria safe zone may not be as Turkey wanted

As soon as U.S. President Donald Trump said he was considering the formation of safe zones for Syrians trying to escape the six-year-old civil war, there was a reaction from Russia.

Dimitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the U.S. had not consulted with them on the project, adding that “probably all the consequences ought to be weighed up.”

That was a clear warning from Putin to Trump, reminding him that what he is talking about is Syrian soil, where Russia stands firm behind the Bashar al-Assad regime. Another message was also clear: If you have a project in Syria, you have to tell us and we have to do it together.

That message is particularly important as it was Russia and Turkey who brokered a ceasefire in Syria between the regime and the rebel forces on Dec. 29, taking an important step to consolidate it with the help of Iran at the Astana talks on Jan. 23-24. Political talks on Syria are also due to be held in Geneva on Feb. 8. 

It is true that the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) - with the ground support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is mainly composed of the militia of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD) - achieved success in clearing a large part of northeastern Syria from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH in Arabic initials. That was despite ongoing objections from Turkey, the U.S.’s NATO partner, over the fact that the PYD is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S. 

Ankara has voiced the formation of internationally protected safe zones to prevent mass migration from Syria ever since the early stages of the civil war. So one may think that Trump’s latest suggestion should please Turkey.

Well, that is not exactly the case. It is true that Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım voiced pride earlier this week that other countries were finally coming round to Turkey’s point years later, but President Tayyip Erdoğan was not very happy as he spoke to reporters on board his plane from Madagascar on the evening of Jan. 25. 

Erdoğan said he was in a hurry to talk to Trump about Middle East matters, over the telephone if it was not possible face to face. He also spoke about “reviving strategic relations” between the two countries, putting them on a “healthy track,” and taking new steps in Syria “as soon as possible.”

The point is that Erdoğan is not 100 percent sure about what Turmp is going to do in Syria. Will he choose to continue cooperating with state actors like Turkey, Russia and Syria, or will he choose non-state actors like the PYD? By mentioning “safe zones” in Syria, does Trump mean safe zones protected with the help of the PYD/PKK in Syrian territory, or does he mean creating an internationally monitored safe zone with the consent of the Syrian government. Under the circumstances if such a scheme involves Russia, it also involves Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

Ankara is also worried about an unofficial paper leaked to the press by the Kremlin listing suggestions on a future constitution for Syria. The paper underlines Syria’s territorial unity, but it also mentions “Kurdish autonomy.”

All these things make Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government anxious ahead of an important referendum where the people will vote on a constitutional shift to an executive presidential system that Erdoğan has been demanding for years. He now wants to have all Syrian (and broader foreign policy) issues in some sort of order before the referendum campaign heats up, which is yet another reason for his hurry.