Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on August 14th that Turkish drones have started operating in northern Syria where the US and Ankara agreed to create a safe zone, but it did not provide further information on the drones’ operations.
A US delegation has arrived in Turkey to cooperate in establishing a joint operational centre that will supervise the creation of the safe zone for Syrian refugees. The move is based on the US agreement with Turkey which took place last week. Details of the agreement regarding the size of the zone and the command structure of joint patrols that would be conducted there have not been revealed.
Construction of the centre has begun and it is expected to become active within the coming few days, Akar tweeted. “Within this context, a US delegation comprising of six people has arrived in Sanliurfa for preliminary preparation.”
US and Ankara have differed regarding plans for northeastern Syria, as US allies on the ground in the battle against Isis include the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers an enemy and a terrorist group. Turkey believes the YPG is an extension in Syria of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has pursued a revolt against the Turkish state since the eighties.
Washington-based journalist and Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu told media outlet Al-Monitor that it is essential for the US to prevent Turkey from taking unilateral steps regarding this issue, noting the parameters of the safe zone can have different interpretations.
Turkey has suggested it will act militarily if the US did not agree a solution that will protect its borders. Turkey and the US have been discussing a safe zone near the Turkish boundary that would be void of fighters and heavy weapons, however Turkey wants it to extend more than twice as far into Syrian lands as the US has proposed.
If the US does not cooperate in meeting the requirements of Ankara in the safe zone, which currently include a corridor 32 km deep into Syrian territory, Akar said Turkey could seek its own solutions. “Call it plan B or plan C. We will have our own plans in case others fail,” Akar said during a televised interview.
In an article for The National Interest, Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, and General Joseph Votel, former commander of the US Central Command, wrote that the safe zone proposed by Ankara would likely dislocate “more than 90 per cent of the Syrian Kurdish population, thus worsening what is already an exacerbated situation there. It will allow the emergence of increased conflict that would require an extended deployment of military forces.”
According to Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, establishing a safe zone would require difficult compromises from leaders in both Ankara and northeast Syria.
“In order to actually implement this thing in a safe way that does not result in bloodshed, violence and the complete collapse of US-Turkish relations, Turkey must make a compromise and accept the SDF as a quasi-legitimate actor, but this will never happen, of course,” Stein told Al-Monitor.
The preliminary proposal for a safe zone introduced by US officials includes SDF forces pulling back five km along the whole of the northeastern Syrian border. Heavy weapons would be moved an additional nine km away from the Turkish border, creating a corridor of 14 km deep. The zone would remain under US control but Stein said the proposal would also include the dismantling of SDF fortifications in the area, which would require earthmoving equipment not currently at the disposal of US troops or the SDF.