A Trojan horse in Syria’s ‘safe havens’?

A Trojan horse in Syria’s ‘safe havens’?

Since the onset of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has demanded the creation of safe zones in Syria to protect civilians and reduce the pressure of refugee inflow on Turkey. However, then-U.S. President Barack Obama turned down Turkey’s demands on the grounds that such a move would pull the U.S. deeper into Syria’s conflict and worse, put the country at odds with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime and his allies.

Just as the Turkish government was expecting to mend ties with the new U.S. administration, news broke that U.S. President Donald Trump was set to sign a draft ordering the State Department and the Pentagon to produce a plan to set up safe zones in Syria and the surrounding area within 90 days.

But instead of cherishing the news, Turkish officials approached this with caution. Why?

First of all, the document, which was reportedly seen by Reuters, is not clear on where exactly these safe zones will be, and whether or not the task will involve the establishment of a no-fly zone as well. 

The timing of the leak was also interesting. 

Russia and Turkey succeeded in brokering a cease-fire in Syria last month. Since then, the cease-fire has remained intact despite a couple of minor violations. The Astana talks which aimed to bring the leaders of the opposition and the al-Assad regime together to discuss Syria’s future last week proved fairly effective. The parties agreed to establish a trilateral commission under Russia, Turkey and Iran to monitor and enforce cease-fire conditions.

As the armed clashes entered a downward trend – amid a glimmer of hope that the truce will evolve into a peace agreement in the upcoming Geneva talks in February – the U.S. attempt to initiate safe zones in Syria can, at the very least, be interpreted as too little, too late.

The fact that Trump’s opening on Syria came on top of unconfirmed news reports that Russia’s proposal for Syria’s new constitution, which recognized the autonomous status of Kurdish-held areas, raised concerns in Turkey that a new episode of Operation Provide Comfort from the first Gulf War might be in play.

Turkey considered the U.S.-led creation of no-fly zones in northern Iraq in 1991 as a betrayal back then on the grounds that its main ally was establishing an autonomous Kurdish entity right along the Turkish border.  Thus, the prolonging of the mandate for the use of the İncirlik Air Base in the mission caused severe disputes in parliament.

Ankara failed to convince the Obama government to end cooperation with the Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Even the launching of the Euphrates Shield operation which, among other objectives, served to prove Turkey as a credible ally on the ground, fell short of achieving this end.

So far, the Trump administration has shown no signs of changing its course on cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), exacerbating Turkey’s concerns. 

It is important to note that the Syrian Kurds are not only considered useful allies on the ground but also that their secular character has received praise from the international community in the fight against radical Islam. More to the point, the anti-Islamist tone of Trump’s cabinet is no secret.

Another possible way to read Trump’s move on Syria is that the newcomer is out to appease its constituency by demonstrating how much more ambitious and assertive he is on foreign policy issues than his predecessor. 

For quite a long time, Russian-led initiatives on Syria have been seen as overshadowing the U.S. in the international arena. Trump might have been trying to outdo Russian efforts by asserting U.S.’s presence in the region.

Besides, this move should also be considered a part of Trump’s policy on immigrants. On the campaign trail, Trump indicated that he was not in favor of U.S. engagement in Syria’s war, but suggested instead that third parties, such as the Gulf countries, undertake the burdens of fighting ISIL in Syria. Therefore, Trump is seeking a solution to keep Muslim refugees – which the administration views as potential terrorists – away from the U.S. by either containing them in Syria or in a third country.

Since the details of this safe zone plan are unknown, the commentaries do not extend beyond speculation. But if the U.S. is seriously determined to enforce a safe zone, or perhaps a no-fly zone in Syria, what will become of the U.S.-Russia honeymoon remains a million-dollar question.