Despite Syria ‘Safe Zone,’ Kurdish Leader Fears Threat from Turkey

Troops’ movement on the border has Kurds worried about a Turkish assault.

One of the two top political leaders of the Syrian Kurdish alliance and co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council Ilham Ahmed attends a press conference, in Paris, on Dec. 21, 2018.   (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
One of the two top political leaders of the Syrian Kurdish alliance and co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council Ilham Ahmed attends a press conference, in Paris, on Dec. 21, 2018. (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite the creation of a security zone on the border between Turkey and northeast Syria that has defused some tension in recent weeks, Syrian Kurds still fear the movement of Turkish ground and aerial forces in their backyard could be a prelude to an assault on the country’s Kurdish minority population.

“If they can, they will go to Damascus,” said Ilham Ahmed, a co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that are responsible for liberating northeastern Syria from the Islamic State, told Foreign Policy through an interpreter in a recent interview in Washington.

The debate over the area—which U.S. officials have labeled a “security mechanism” rather than a safe zone—is deeply personal for Ahmed, who grew up in the northwest Syrian town of Afrin. The Turks and their proxy forces swept into Afrin last year, waging a violent campaign on the Kurdish-controlled town. Ahmed’s entire family was forced to flee and now lives in tents outside the city, she said. 

U.S. support to the Syrian Kurds has been a major source of tension between Ankara and Washington since the U.S. military began arming the group in 2014. The military arm of the SDF is led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a mostly Kurdish militia that Ankara views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Both Turkey and the United States have designated the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey, a terrorist group.

Ankara has been pushing for a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” on the border for months as a necessary measure to address its security concerns. U.S. President Donald Trump even promised a 20-mile safe zone in a January tweet, which officials later walked back. But the Syrian Kurds fear a Turkish assault on the area’s civilian population, which Ahmed has said could be a “catastrophe” for her people. 

Since the security mechanism—which involves joint U.S. and Turkish ground and aerial patrols between the Syrian border towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain—was established earlier this month, Ahmed said the SDF has kept to its side of the bargain. YPG fighters have surrendered the area to local security forces, removed fortifications and tunnels on the border, and withdrawn heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery by 12 miles. 

But the presence of Turkish troops and military equipment on the border is still a threat, Ahmed said. The Kurds are particularly concerned about Turkish surveillance drones operating in the area as part of the joint patrols, she noted.  

“Unless the border goes back to normality, where things on the border are normal with no troops on the two sides, then we cannot say that the problem is solved,” she said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to resettle 3 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey into the safe zone is also “troubling,” Ahmed said. Most of the refugees in Turkey are not native to northeast Syria, and their presence there could displace the Kurdish residents in that area, she added.

“Every day, there is escalation from Turkey and threats,” she said.

U.S. defense and military officials expressed cautious optimism that an uneasy peace between the Turks and the Kurds can be maintained. But experts say continued U.S. presence on the ground as a “credible interlocutor” will be key to assuring both sides. 

Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Turkey will still continue to push for more concessions.

“Probably nothing is going to satisfy the Turks 100 percent because the core issue is U.S. support for the SDF,” Stroul said. But the mechanism has “opened up space” to work through differences.  

Chris Maier, the Pentagon’s director of the Defeat-ISIS Task Force, said the security mechanism—which involves joint U.S. and Turkish military patrols of the area—has “substantially” eased the threat of a Turkish incursion into northeast Syria. 

But Turkish officials have expressed frustration with the slow pace of implementation. Erdogan over the weekend threatened to take unilateral steps if the United States does not complete implementation of the safe zone this month, reiterating concerns that Washington is still providing arms to the Kurdish fighters. He said his talks with Trump at the United Nations General Assembly this week could represent a “last chance” to establish the zone. 

Maier acknowledged the United States is still providing “very tailored” weapons and vehicles to the SDF to help it fight the remnants of the Islamic State, which has been threatening to resurge in the country. But the United States provides Turkey a detailed list of the supplies on a monthly basis, he stressed.  

He acknowledged that the security mechanism “is a work in progress.”

“We understand that there is a number of elements to this arrangement that will take place over time, removal of fortifications does not happen overnight, this is a work in progress,” Maier said, but “we feel like we’re on pace, or in some cases ahead of pace on what was agreed.” 

U.S. defense and military officials stressed that the SDF is committed to removing the YPG elements that cause Turkey concern. 

“They’re participating in all of the tasks that have been agreed upon in a combined manner moving forward,” said Brig. Gen. Scott Naumann, the director of operations for Operation Inherent Resolve. “We believe that this shows the total commitment to this agreement and our continuing coordination as we build on the positive momentum that we’ve achieved together.”

As part of the security mechanism, Washington and Ankara have also established a joint operational center in southern Turkey, where U.S. and Turkish military representatives are responsible for daily planning and coordination of the ground and aerial patrols, Maier said. 

The depth of the zone has also been a flash point. Turkey has pushed for a safe zone that extends 20 miles into Syria, but the Kurds have balked at that number. Ahmed said the safe zone is currently between 3 and 9 miles into northeast Syria; U.S. officials declined to give a range. 

The U.S. military has about 1,000 troops operating throughout northeast Syria as part of both the security mechanism and the mission to defeat the Islamic State, Naumann said. There are no plans to increase that footprint.

Ahmed also expressed frustration that the SDF is not represented at the constitutional committee or in Geneva talks to arrive at a peace agreement for the country. When asked if she felt sufficiently supported by the United States, she said, “No, it is not enough.”

“The only group that fought ISIS is excluded,” from peace talks, she said. “Who is going to write our constitution now?”

Ahmed acknowledged that the security mechanism is a good first step that “should open the door for a more sustainable dialogue.” But any permanent agreement requires a U.S. presence as a “guarantor” to both sides, she stressed.  

In the long term, though, the U.S. military’s presence in Syria is still a question mark. 

“The president has made clear he wants to end the military mission in Syria. At some point the question is how long is the United States going to leave its forces there and support the SDF,” Stroul said. “What happens to the U.S. military presence in northeast Syria is tied to what happens in the broader political process to maybe move toward a negotiated settlement.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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