Without Kurds, U.S.-Turkey safe zone plan risks ISIS resurgence - analysts

The U.S.-Turkey safe zone plan for a region of northeast Syria largely controlled by Kurdish militia fails to address local concerns and is likely to hurt the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State (ISIS), according to analyses in conservative U.S. outlet National Interest. 

“For any deal in northeastern Syria to work, it has to provide a sustainable solution to U.S. and Turkish security interests and address Kurdish concerns. The current agreement fails on all counts,” Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, and General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command from March 2016 to March 2019, wrote for National Interest on Monday. 

Turkey has long pushed for a 20-mile-deep zone that it controls and is off limits to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). If those are the parameters of the zone, it would likely displace more than 90 percent of the Syrian Kurdish population, exacerbating an extremely challenging humanitarian situation and creating an environment for increased conflict, Tol and Votel said.  

The SDF victory over ISIS in March left it in control of one-third of Syria, containing some five million people, including Arabs, Kurds, Syriac-Assyrian-Chaldean Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen. 

“Stabilising and rebuilding this diverse and complex region may prove even more difficult than defeating ISIS,” Amy Austin Holmes, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, and Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an Erbil-based analyst of Kurdish politics, also wrote for National Interest on Monday. 

Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to refuse to make concessions to the region, while Erdoğan threatens to invade and ISIS sleeper cells carry out regular attacks. “Given the enormity of the challenges and precarity of the situation, it is of utmost importance to carefully calibrate and implement U.S. policy at this watershed moment,” said Holmes and van Wilgenburg. 

The proposed safe zone will hurt U.S. efforts to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, according to Tol and Votel, as the SDF has been the most effective force against the extreme jihadist group, promoting stability and local governance and shutting down the movement and resources that ISIS requires.

“Ankara claims that the presence of Kurdish forces in this area poses a security threat to Turkey. While there continue to be some incidents along the border ... there is no evidence to suggest the area is being used as a platform to attack Turkey,” said Tol and Votel. 

Displacing the Kurdish population would deny the people of northeast Syria protection from attacks and an opportunity to live in peace and recover from conflict, Tol and Votel said. 

Kurds have proven themselves willing to share power with their Arab counterparts, while the SDF has shown an ability to negotiate tribal politics, including with jihadist groups like al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and the SDF administration is guided by experienced professionals, including economists, physicians and educators, according to Holmes and van Wilgenburg. 

“Without the SDF, there is a real risk that jihadist factions such as HTS and ISIS could return,” said Holmes and van Wilgenburg, pointing out that in Idlib rebels were unable to fight off HTS.

Meanwhile, Turkey has often been unable to stop rebel infighting in areas under its control, as in al-Bab last year, where a group threatened U.S. soldiers. Given the number of rival factions, a centralised command structure like that of the SDF is absolutely necessary, according to Holmes and van Wilgenburg. 

Rather than a safe zone, Tol and Votel call for a sustainable security mechanism that addresses all parties’ concerns, monitors and controls security operations and facilitates communication.

Kurdish forces should allow vulnerable areas to be jointly patrolled, heavy weapons must be moved away from the border and border security positions should be dismantled, while Turkey should work closely with the U.S.-led coalition on combined patrols, surveillance, and jointly manned border checkpoints, according to Tol and Votel. 

If the United States wants to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, Holmes and van Wilgenburg argue, members of the coalition should increase their financial and political support for stabilisation and reconstruction and pressure Turkey and Iraq to open the borders for the delivery of humanitarian goods.

“The overarching objective should be to make the communities of northeastern Syria resilient against any possible re-emergence of ISIS. This will require professional, inclusive, and effective security forces. The United States has a rare opportunity to positively impact the human development of the region. The time to act is now,” said Holmes and van Wilgenburg.