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Feb 01 2019

Turkey seems determined to set up a safe zone in Syria, but how?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan extended his support to a suggestion made by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to use the 1998 Adana Agreement as a framework for cooperation between Turkey and Syria.

A closer look at what has Putin exactly said may help better understand the scope of his suggestion. At a Jan. 23 press conference after a Moscow summit between Erdoğan and Putin, a journalist asked both leaders their opinion on the establishment of a safe zone in northeast Syria. Erdoğan said Turkey had agreed with the United States to set up a 20-mile (32-km) wide safe zone inside Syria along the Turkish border. Putin said such a zone could be established either with a UN Security Council resolution or with the consent of the host country. He said U.S. forces had no legitimacy in Syria, because they had not been invited by the Syrian government.

Two different questions arise from these statements: One is the revitalisation of Turkish-Syrian cooperation to fight terrorism. The other is the setting up of a safe zone on Syrian soil along the Turkish border.

Regarding the revitalisation of cooperation, Erdoğan said the Adana Agreement gave Turkey the right both to launch a cross-border military operation in Syria and to set up a safe zone.

Syria did not reject Putin’s suggestion outright. A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement said that Damascus was ready to implement all agreements with Turkey for the sake of fighting terrorism, on condition that it withdrew all its troops from Syria.

The matter is also being debated in the Turkish media. General Ismail H. Pekin who chaired one of the sub-committees in the 1998 Adana Agreement negotiations said on Sunday that the agreement only allowed joint action to fight terrorism, and not unilateral military action.

As to the Turkish government’s position, Erdoğan has repeatedly said that Ankara supported Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Turkey cannot easily renounce these commitments; therefore, it is expected to withdraw from Syria in due course.

Regarding the setting up of a safe zone, the divergence appears first at the level of Turkey-Russia relations. Putin expressed his opposition to the idea when he said that a UN Security Council resolution was needed to achieve this goal. Russia will probably use its veto if a draft resolution is submitted to the council. Putin’s remark may also mean that Russia will try to dissuade Turkey from creating a safe zone if an attempt is made to establish it without a UN Security Council resolution.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed out that the safe zone issue is not a subject to be discussed between Russia and Turkey. It has to be negotiated between Ankara and Damascus. This remark may also be an allusion to the inopportunity of Turkey’s initiative to set up such a zone in cooperation with the United States.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier said that the vacuum to be created by the departure of U.S. troops had to be filled by the Syrian forces. This is an additional objection by Russia to the safe zone. Syria has yet to express its position on this aspect of the question. However, no country can be expected to acquiesce in the creation of such a zone on its soil without its consent.

Another contradiction lies between Turkey and the United States regarding the purpose of the safe zone. Top-level U.S. political figures expressed the importance they attached to the protection of Syria’s Kurds. President Trump tweeted that “the U.S. will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “we’ll ensure Turks don’t slaughter Kurds”. White House security advisor John Bolton said the “U.S. will not leave Syria until Kurds are protected”. These statements prove that the United States wants a safe zone to protect the Kurds, especially the members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that it equipped and trained to fight Islamic State, from the Turkish army.

Turkey wants to do exactly the opposite of it; to set up a security zone to eliminate the presence of the YPG.

It remains to be seen how Turkey will overcome this contradiction.