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‘Safe Zone‘ Possible without Moscow?

Ankara and Washington reached a mutual agreement after long negotiations on a safe zone to be established in northern Syria. Turkish Ministry of Defense published a written statement that an agreement was made with the American delegate on three specific points. According to this, the parties agreed on the implementation of measures that will ease the security concerns of Turkey.

Within this framework, it has been stated that a joint operations center will be established in Turkey for the coordination and management of the secure area. However, neither the Turkish Ministry of Defense nor the Ankara Embassy of the United States made a statement referring to the borders of this secure zone. While the Damascus regime reacted strongly to the decision, Moscow did not give up its approach that safe zone control in Syria should be under the control of the regime.

In a statement made by Damascus regime plans by Turkey  and the United States to build “safe area” harshly rejected. Syrian regime stated that the Turkish-American plan is considered an attack on territorial integrity of their nation. It is not secret that Moscow has similar approaches for a long time. 

Russia’s Safe Zone Statement 

On April 26, Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy for Syria, who held a press conference after the Syrian talks in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, said that the control of the safe zone in Syria should be under the control of the regime. Lavrentiev, who stated that that they are informed of Turkey’s plans towards establishing a TSK-controlled (Turkish Armed Forces) safe zone on the Iraqi-Syrian border, and added: “Such a zone might be established, however, the best option is to transfer this land to the control of Syrian government forces. This should be done not only to control the border but also to ensure security and prevent provocations.” 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the following to Kurdistan 24 channel on the same date: “We have relations with all parties involved in the crisis. What is important to us is the protection of the territorial sovereignty of Syria. This is our primary objective and this is not negotiable for us. In addition, a solution could be found that covers the interests of the Kurds. We are in negotiations. We are potently in communication with Turkey .”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who answered a question at a press conference in capital Moscow on January 16 at the beginning of this year, stated that the process regarding the “safe zone” should be evaluated within the framework of Syria’s territorial integrity, and added: “But I would like to remind you, the main objective is to ensure the territorial integrity of Syria, which is also signed by all members of the UN, including the United States, Turkey, and Russia. In the meantime, of course, we will oversee the security and interests of all parties in the region, and the neighbors of Syria including Turkey.”

“US will not allow the destruction of PKK/PYD’’ 

The regional specialists from Russia made different evaluations after the statement of Turkey’s National Defense Ministry about the safe zone. Institute of Contemporary Development Russia Institute of Contemporary Development Chairman Kirill Semenov stated: “Americans did not offer any guarantees to Turkey. Moreover, no details have been specified about the establishment of this zone.

It is not certain whether there will be the Turkish military, allied forces, or Syrian soldiers in there. We cannot say that the US, which came to an understanding about the safe zone, will stop supporting the Kurds for the sake of the Turks. On the contrary, the US will continue to do whatever they did in the past in order to have the Kurdish self-defense forces to hold control of the region. The influence of the US in the region depends on this.” Semenov, who also stated that the agreement is based on vague formulas, and there are no clear details about who will control the region, whether the self-defense forces need to leave the region, or what does it mean to deliver heavy weapons, added that “Who will receive the heavy weapons and what about the other existing weapons?” type of questions will spring to minds. 

The Russian expert Semenov’s statements coincide with the assessments made by retired Brigadier General Erdal Sener, former Joint Special Task Force Commander, who retired during the High Military Council (YAS) meeting this August. Sener explained that the US does not allow the use of military force and added: “The US will not allow the destruction of PKK/PYD. They managed to prevent the ground offensive of Turkish Armed Forces behind closed doors.

The statement regarding the safe zone and the joint operation is an explanation in order to ease the tension of Turkish society.” Sener noted that the US has created its own buffer zone, and stated: “The US suffers from losing the Operation Olive Branch and Operation Euphrates Shield. The USA gave the message to Russia that they are in the region with this agreement. Turkey does not have the authority to conduct military operations in the region. They are going to act like they are establishing headquarters and performing actions with delaying tactics. This deal is not in favor of Turkey’s interests but it is in favor of the US. They will carry out a wait and see policy. They are talking about joint operations and patrols. I patrolled in the west of the Euphrates in Manbij, which was the only place held by PKK/PYD, next to the Americans. Not a single day we entered in Manbij. It was a patrol for the sake of appearances. Now they are talking about a 30-40-kilometer depth. An utter imagination. You can’t just ignore PKK/PYD without intervention in the region like the Operation Olive Branch and Operation Euphrates Shield. They made way for PKK/PYD and the Kurdish state.”

Russia State News Agency Ria published an article on 9 August which reads “Washington “pushed the limits” a little bit as a result of the diplomatic pressure from Ankara.” In the same article, military strategist Boris Rozhin stated the following: “According to Ankara, the “safe zone” will be a “peaceful corridor” where the Syrian refugees (approximately 3.5 million) will have the chance to return back to their homes. The weakening of the Kurdish forces in the region may hinder US plans and the fact that the tension between Washington and Ankara has increased recently led the US to this decision. In order not to lose control of the region, the Pentagon was able to persuade Ankara to establish a special coordination center after deciding to “steer” the operations to northern Syria.”

Rozhin explains where Ankara stands: “Both countries needed a US-Turkey coordination center in order for both countries to stay in the game and at least somehow control the situation. It would be a great risk for Ankara to start the operation without any coordination. It seems that there is a formation against the Kurds. But against whom a joint operation in Syria is being carried out by the US and Turkey? What is the objective? There are some uncertainties. It will be better perceived who made the compromises after the width of the security team is fully announced. At least 25 kilometers or more mean that the Americans will be forced to make serious concessions.”  

Ankara Plays Domestic Politics

Federal News Agency columnist Kirill Romanovsky approaches the issue as follows: Currently, the situation in northern Syria is relatively calm. Majority of the Kurds believe that Americans will not leave their allies in Syria. On the other hand, the local community is trying to take refuge from the troops of the Free Syrian Army and pro-Turkish groups. Sources from the region claim that Americans have agreed on a “security zone” at a depth of 4 to 8 kilometers. This is quite small compared to Ankara’s wishes up to 35 kilometers width. If the information received is correct, the Turks will receive the sparsely populated agricultural lands to the east of Kobane. Romanovsky bases this claim on the news from the region and states the following: “According to the talks amongst some of the Kurdish groups, this land offer is the hush money offered from Americans to Turks.

According to Kirill Romanovsky, the declaration of the agreement of a “safe zone” in Syria is a successful outcome for domestic policy for Ankara: “From the perspective of the Turkish people; the government in Ankara achieved good results both against the “terrorists” and the US. I think Turkey will not engage in a serious operation. Turkey might only launch some small scale long-range weapons or carry out controlled patrols. 

As a result, there is no change in Moscow’s approach to the safe zone agreement that has no details just yet.  The US, which has withdrawn some of its troops from the region in the past year, is unclear how it will react to the reports that suggest ISIS will take action again. According to a recently published report by the US Department of Defense, ISIS has reactivated its cells. The report suggests that 45.000 ISIS supporters are getting ready in the camps. If the Kurds take a stance against the US because of the Safe Zone agreement and put forward other alternatives such as turning to Assad; there will be a bilateral loss for President Trump at a time when the elections are being discussed. As for Moscow, it will strengthen its position both in Syria and throughout the Middle East.

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Arif Asalıoğlu is General Director of the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation in Moscow; expert in the field of Russian-Turkish relations; columnist of Informational agency REGNUM; Founder of Russian and Turkish Intellectuals Meeting.

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