Turkey, US seek to narrow differences on safe zone in Syria

Turkey, US seek to narrow differences on safe zone in Syria

A senior interagency delegation led by James Jeffrey, United States’ special Syria envoy, is paying a visit to Ankara to continue negotiations on setting up a safe zone in northeastern Syria.

The timing is quite important. It follows a U.S. decision to end the Turkish participation in the two-decade-old F-35 aircraft program as a result of Ankara’s deployment of the Russian S-400 air defense systems. Plus, it comes as Washington deliberates on whether or not to sanction Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.

On the day Jeffrey negotiated the safe zone in Ankara, U.S. President Donald Trump was scheduled to meet the Republican senators on the same matter as some reports suggested that he was not in favor of sanctioning Turkey.

As can be recalled, talks on a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border came to the fore early this year after Trump tweeted about a possibility of forming a 20-mile (32 kilometers) deep safe zone inside Syria to address Turkey’s legitimate concerns stemming from the presence of the YPG, a group Ankara considers as a terror organization because of its links with the PKK.

Although since then many talks have taken place between military, intelligence and foreign ministry officials of the two sides, not much progress could be observed due to serious differences over the modalities of the safe zone. The U.S. seeks to limit the depth of the safe zone to around 10 kilometers while Turkey says the YPG should at least be 30 kilometers away from the Turkish borders.

The safe zone will be free of the YPG troops, but who will provide the local security is also a matter of debate between the two sides. More importantly, the U.S. does not anticipate a permanent Turkish military presence along the zone and wants to create an international force with the participation of several European countries.

Those who are knowledgeable about the course of the negotiations make clear that the visions of the two sides over the safe zone are quite different and it would take more time to narrow them.

But these Syria-related talks have urgency. Turkey says its patience is running thin and a further postponement of the fulfillment of the U.S. promises in regards to setting up a safe zone and withdrawing from Manbij city of Syria will only hasten Ankara’s unilateral action.

The messages provided by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu early July 22, just before the Turkish-American talks, were quite important to this end. The Turkish minister told the U.S. that it will not hesitate to carry out a new military incursion into northeastern Syria in the event that Washington continues to drag its feet.

Take the Manbij plan. Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed on June 4, 2018, on a road map for the withdrawal of the YPG troops from the enclave within a certain period but no concrete actions have taken place in the last 14 months.

Or take this. U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Kenneth McKenzie met with the top commander of the YPG in northern Syria on the same day Jeffrey was holding talks with the Turkish officials in Ankara, showing Washington’s double-game on Syria.

No need to repeat, all these moves fuel the climate of mistrust between the two parties and make a breakthrough much more difficult.

But, at the same time, both sides are very aware of the need for a display of continued cooperation to prove that bilateral relations in various fields will be unaffected by the S-400/F-35 crisis. The safe zone will either turn into a success story or a new source of tension between the two countries at the expense of making life much more complicated for both sides.