Washington is still thinking about a new border force in Syria – Neither Turkey or the Kurds in eastern Syria seem to know what Washington’s final plan is


By Seth J. Frantzman April 6, 2019 11:48  – The US is still trying to thread the needle between its alliance with Turkey and its partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria, hoping a border force or “safe zone” can reduce tensions after the defeat of Islamic State. Since the US announced its withdrawal and then reversed that decision in the last months Washington and Ankara have been in discussions about what comes next in eastern Syria where the US has been working to defeat ISIS with Kurdish and Arab fighters.

In an interview at The Defense Post Jared Szuba spoke to Aldar Xelil, a TEV-DEM diplomatic relations official whose views reflect the larger thinking of the SDF and Kurdish forces in eastern Syria. The US-led Coalition and the SDF declared the defeat of ISIS in its last “caliphate” foothold on the Euphrates in late March. The defeat of ISIS came three months after US President Donald Trump had announced the US was withdrawing from Syria, casting a huge question mark over what comes next in eastern Syria.

With the support of the US and the Coalition, the SDF have liberated a huge swath of Syria from ISIS. But this has also increased tensions with Turkey. Ankara has accused the US of working closely with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which it says is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). From Ankara’s perspective this means that the PKK has come to control swaths of eastern Syria while fighting ISIS with US support. Since a 2015 ceasefire broke down Turkey has been fighting the PKK and it launched operations into Syria in the fall of 2016 and then again in January 2018. In the latter case it took over the area of Afrin along with Syrian rebel groups, promising that hundreds of thousands of mostly Syrian Arab refugees would return to areas. Kurds fled and the YPG was defeated in Afrin. Turkey has vowed to launch an operation in eastern Syria to remove the YPG and Ankara says it will return Kurdish areas to their “true owners.”

From the Kurdish perspective in eastern Syria this is a recipe for disaster as all their gains fighting ISIS will be lost and the relative stability they have brought since 2015 will be scuppered. The US is also concerned. A new article by Robin Wright at The New Yorker sketched out how the US is seen as having “betrayed” its allies in eastern Syria. “How could a great country behave like that and abandon its allies in the middle of the fight,” SDF commander Mazloum Kobani, said.

This is the strange situation Washington finds itself in today. Turkey has vowed numerous times to “clear” eastern Syria and the city of Manbij of “terrorists,” by which it means the YPG. “Who will provide our security here, Russia or Iran,” the Turkish president asked in early March. “We will achieve that.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Turkey about any unilateral actions in Syria, warning of “devastating consequences,” according to a report in Kurdistan24.

In his interview Xelil indicated that the SDF will be meeting with US envoy James Jeffrey soon to “understand the matter better.”

Jeffrey indicated in a press briefing in late March, after the ISIS defeat, that the US was still working with Turkey to establish a “safe zone” along the border, which would exclude the YPG. But the details of the safe zone, under discussion since January, are a mystery to everyone involved. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told CBS that US policy was unclear on April 3. Furthermore the comments by Xelil also indicate the SDF doesn’t know what the force will consist of.

The US has been unclear about the number of troops it wants to keep in eastern Syria. Estimates range from as few as 200 to more than 1,000. The US also told western powers it wanted contirbutions in February to a “peacekeeping force” that would form part of the force along the Turkish border that would help allay Ankara’s concerns. But how will the US actually get the YPG or SDF to withdraw and fill in the area with some new border force. The US is still helping to train security forces in eastern Syria and Washington attempts to make sure these forces include Arabs and Kurds. There was also talk of using Kurdish forces linked to other Kurdish political parties. But after months of looking into these plans, it appears none of them have born fruit.

Turkey wants the YPG removed from eastern Syria, especially from the border area where most Kurds live. It would like to replicate its Afrin operation, removing the YPG and using Syrian rebel groups, that are mostly Arab, to control the border. Then Syrian refugees who are mostly not from eastern Syria, would move in, fueling fears of demographic change similar to what took place in Afrin. The Syrian regime doesn’t want that, but it wants the YPG weakened as well and wants the SDF to beg the Syrian regime to take control of the border. Russia support the Syrian regime’s view. Iran wants the US weakened and would also like to see any US-backed forces, such as the SDF, weakened. This means that Turkey, Iran and Russia are all aligned in some form on eastern Syria, either in weakening the US or weakening the SDF. How the US intends to confront that, while also trying to create a border buffer that is amenable to Ankara, remains to be seen. With Turkey not struggling with election recounts, Washington may have a few weeks breathing space. But given its lack of clarity in messaging, no one seems to know what the US is actually doing and how it will wave a magic wand and conjure up a border force that makes everyone pleased.

With ISIS still a threat, sleeper cells emerging and tens of thousands of ISIS members in detention camps, eastern Syria is still a complex puzzle. One false move could make the pieces overlap and lead to new conflict.