Good start for Syria 'safe zone', Kurdish official says

Success of Syria 'safe zone' dependent on Turkish troop withdrawal, Kurdish official says
3 min read
04 September, 2019
Top Syrian Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed has said that US troops must help patrol the so-called 'safe zone'.
Only refugees from eastern Syria will be allowed to return, the official said [AFP]

The creation of a so-called "safe zone" in northeastern Syria has gotten off to a good start, a top Syrian Kurdish official has said, but can only be successful if Turkey removes its troops.

The US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began their withdrawal from a small, initial area along the Turkish border late last month, but the US and Turkey-brokered buffer zone is expected to fall under Turkish jurisdiction. 

Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the executive committee of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Council, said on Tuesday that the deal reached between Washington and Ankara last month in coordination with Syrian Kurdish-led forces constitutes an important step towards starting a dialogue over mutual security concerns.

"We seek to find a way to dialogue, and starting to implement this plan expresses our readiness and seriousness," Ahmed told The Associated Press. "We want to tell the world and the coalition that we are ready to take serious steps to get to dialogue." 

Ankara has long pursued the "safe zone" initiative, finally reaching a deal last month to implement the buffer zone which it says will protect its borders from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) which it views as a terrorist organisation.

Turkish officials have repeatedly threatened an offensive in Syria's Kurdish-governed northeast to repel the YPG - which it accuses of being the Syrian branch of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish insurgent organisation that has been in conflict with the Turkish state since the early 1980s.

But the YPG-dominated SDF has been US' only direct partner on the ground in fighting the Islamic State group against which its announced its territorial defeat earlier this year, although Turkey, rebel and Russian-backed regime forces also battled them. 

The Kurdish forces have warned that since the US announced its withdrawal from Syria earlier this year they are at imminent risk of Turkish invasion and are keen to work out an agreement with both parties to safeguard their gains.

Under the "safe zone" deal, YPG troops are expected to pull out of the zone, but details around who would patrol and administer it are still to be worked out. 

Ankara has demanded its troops should control the area, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warning over the weekend that Turkey would launch a unilateral offensive to create the zone if its wishes are not satisfied. 

Read more: Only peace between Turkey and the PKK can bring stability to northern Syria

The length of the zone has also not yet been agreed on, but will likely stretch hundreds of kilometers. While the deal envisions an area five to 14 kilometres deep (three to eight miles) with no YPG presence, and a 20-kilometre-deep zone (12 miles) with no heavy weapons, Turkey wants a deeper zone.

"We do not have too much time or patience regarding the safe zone," Erdogan said. "Within a few weeks if our soldiers do not start to actually control this area, there will be no other option left but to implement our own operation plans."

Ahmed said more US troops would be needed to implement the buffer zone, but the US has not stated whether it will deploy any. 

"In the coming days, and because of the needs of the formation and implementation of the security mechanism, they may need more forces. It is not yet clear what the US administration would decide," the Kurdish official said.

There are currently around a 1,000 American troops in Syria, but President Donald Trump has said the soldiers will be brought home. Military officials, however, have advocated a phased withdrawal.

Ahmed has also questioned Turkish plans to make the "safe zone" a home for the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.

The Kurdish official said only those originally from eastern Syria would be allowed to return, reflecting worries over demographic engineering with the return of large numbers of Syrians to the area.