by Joe Macaron
US officials appear to be overselling a potential deal with Turkey on establishing a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria, one they hope could peel Ankara away from Moscow. However, this approach might accelerate the confrontation between Turkish and Kurdish forces in the absence of a clear American strategy in Syria and given the uncertainty in US-Turkish relations.
James Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS, said in a June 11 briefing that “we’re not working to try to reconcile Turkey and the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces],” while reiterating that the US focus remains on the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (IS) with SDF partners.
Jeffrey’s statement outlining the status of negotiations downplays what he said on June 4, that Turkey and the SDF reached “a general agreement in principle” to pull back Kurdish forces and establish a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria. It was not the only statement Jeffrey had retracted this month. On June 6, he reportedly told the Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet that Washington and Ankara are working together to change the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the June 11 briefing, he reiterated the US policy line that “we are going to work with any Syrian authorities that are willing to cooperate to achieve that objective”—that is, of drafting a new constitution, organizing free and fair elections, and adopting a governance approach that meets international standards.
Jeffrey also announced the end of the negotiations with European allies on helping to establish and patrol this safe zone. Since President Donald Trump abruptly declared last December his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, the United States entered negotiations with some European countries such as France and Germany to fill the vacuum; but these talks have failed, and no US soldiers have been reportedly withdrawn from Syria since that declaration. Announcing the end of the talks with European allies before guaranteeing an agreement with Turkey is also a premature move that leaves the United States with little room to maneuver if relations between Washington and Ankara unravel.
The Parameters of a Potential US-Turkish Deal in Syria
The United States has been in discussions with Turkey about establishing a safe zone between Syria and Turkey extending from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border in the east. According to Jeffrey, the preliminary deal for the safe zone includes the following: 1) withdrawing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the core military focus of the SDF, away from the Turkish border within some distance that is yet to be determined; 2) removing military facilities in that zone; 3) withdrawing heavy weapons even farther back; and 4) having the United States and Turkey monitor this zone.
While both Turkey and the SDF seem open to reaching a deal that allows the United States to remain in Syria for the foreseeable future, there are two pending questions that hinder a conclusion of this agreement: How deep in Syrian territory should this safe zone be? What role should Turkey have in it? These two issues are critical because they have bearing over how much Ankara will take away from SDF-controlled territories and further undermine the emergence of a unified, viable autonomous Kurdish entity, which has already been disconnected by Turkish forces west of the Euphrates. Moreover, Kurdish forces are concerned that Turkey might coercively enforce the safe zone by utilizing this mandate to confront the SDF. The Turkish concerns are that the YPG should not be close enough to launch attacks on Turkish targets. Further, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long maintained that any safe zones on the Syrian-Turkish border should be under Turkish control.
Ankara wants Washington to keep Kurdish forces at least 30 to 40 kilometers away, south of the Turkish border, to collect heavy weapons from the SDF, and to place the safe zone area under Turkish control. The Trump Administration is not inclined to comply given that it is taking its own and Kurdish interests into account while negotiating with Ankara. Washington is trying to disengage the SDF from the YPG, which is technically not probable without a Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation agreement. The problem with such a reconciliation is that the Trump Administration explicitly said it has no intention to mediate. Hence, once again US policy wants to combine two conflicting objectives: stabilizing northeastern Syria by maintaining a partnership with the SDF and appeasing Erdogan enough to keep Ankara away from Moscow as much as possible.
Given the tensions between Moscow and Ankara over Idlib in northwestern Syria since March, the Trump administration saw an opportunity to peel Turkey away from Russia and offered some flexibility in giving some patriot missiles to Ankara, forming a technical committee to discuss the Russian S-400 advanced missile defense system Turkey would like to acquire, and hinting about the possibility of reaching a deal in northeastern Syria. By prematurely announcing a US-Turkish deal in northeastern Syria before fully resolving the S-400 problem, and especially in light of the proximity of Turkish and Kurdish forces who are operating without reconciliation guarantees, Jeffrey risked paving the way for a Kurdish-Turkish confrontation, considering the wide gap between this US expectation and the reality on the ground.
The risks of having Jeffrey be the lead contact with Turkey, instead of a US ambassador or cabinet level official, envisions Washington’s relationship with Ankara through the Syrian prism instead of the broader context of a bilateral relationship. The talks that Jeffrey has been leading seem to be stalled now. Nevertheless, Trump and many key US officials view an agreement with Ankara in northeastern Syria as a priority to secure a safe and gradual withdrawal of US troops from the country. Another prevailing view in the administration, however, is that any US withdrawal should not take place as it would essentially be a gift to Russia and Iran.
Obstacles Facing a US-Turkish Deal in Syria
There are several ongoing challenges impeding a US-Turkish deal in northeastern Syria. First and foremost is the expected delivery of the Russian-made S-400s to Ankara next month. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on June 24 that “whatever sanctions will be decided, whatever statement would come from the United States, we have purchased S-400s and right now we are talking about when they will be delivered.” US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper noted on June 20 that “seeking resolution is still within the realm of possible [sic] today, but imposition of sanctions remains a course of action and a very viable one at this point.” Erdogan, however, says that “I do not see any possibility of these sanctions” and that Ankara “will have sanctions of our own” in case the Trump Administration takes punitive measures.
The Pentagon warned Turkey in a letter about the consequences of acquiring the S-400 missile system. The United States is considering a range of options, including ending the F-35 sale to Turkey and sanctioning the Turkish defense entities and companies doing business with Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which would hit Ankara’s increasingly close relationship with Moscow.
A second challenge to a potential US-Turkey agreement is that there is a growing distrust between US and Turkish officials, one that began after the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and the growing US support for the SDF in Syria. On June 13, Erdo?an said the following regarding the US role: “Do you know what their biggest goal now is? ‘How we can topple the AK Party from power,’ this is their matter. But they won’t be able to overthrow, their power would not be sufficient for that.” He further affirmed that Washington has sent “tens of thousands of truck loads of weapons and ammunitions” to Kurdish groups. US officials also argue that Turkish authorities will share the F-35 secrets with Moscow, making US air jets vulnerable to the Russian S-400.
Third, the price of an agreement between Washington and Ankara might be a Russian aggressive approach against Turkish interests in Syria. Turkey is already struggling to maintain a fragile ceasefire with Russia in Idlib and the Turkish forces’ observation posts around Idlib have been under repeated attacks by the Syrian regime. This means Turkey might realign its interests in the Syrian conflict by benefiting from US support and enduring potential attacks by Russian and Iranian proxies on Turkish-backed armed groups.
The Boiling Point of the Upcoming Trump-Erdogan Summit
July will be a reckoning moment for US-Turkish relations. If the Trump-Erdogan summit fails next month and Ankara officially receives the Russian S-400 delivery, US-Turkish relations will sour further and it will be hard to see how Washington and Ankara could reach an agreement in northeastern Syria.
Erdo?an seems confident that his conversations with Trump have a different tone from what Ankara hears from the Pentagon and the US establishment. This Turkish perception is reminiscent of the stance of other US allies like Saudi officials who bet on their open communications with the White House and the president to bypass and balance the establishment in Washington—a move that carries some risks in the short and long term.
The fact is that the United States and Turkey have irreconcilable regional interests. They cannot afford the strategic implications of fully breaking their alliances; indeed, for nearly a decade they have been attempting to mitigate the impact of these tensions on their bilateral relations. Ankara might soon have to face the moment of truth: to choose between coming under significant US pressure if the S-400 system were officially received, or to deal with the consequences of a Russian-led ground offensive in Idlib if the S-400 deal does not go through. The two scenarios will have certain impact on the Turkish economy at a crucial time for Erdogan, whose political party just lost its mayoral race in Istanbul. If relations with Turkey unravel, the Trump administration will be increasingly isolated in Syria, will have to stall its withdrawal from the country, and its forces there would operate in an increasingly volatile environment. Both the United States and Turkey have something to lose if they break their alliance fully; but managing their relations has become increasingly difficult.