AMMAN- The US Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, met with the Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in Ankara on Monday, July 22 to discuss forming a safe zone in north Syria, east of the Euphrates.

According to a statement released by the Turkish Defense Ministry after the meeting, Akar emphasized the necessity of “forming a safe zone in coordination with the United States, as well as the expulsion of the terrorist PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] members from that region and the destruction of their [military] fortifications there.” 

While Jeffery visited Ankara, General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), visited northeast Syria (also known by its Kurdish name, Rojava) and met with the general commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazlum Kobane (also known as Mazlum Abdi). 

The meetings occur as tensions between Turkey and the SDF continue to escalate. The day before the meetings, southern Turkey was subject to mortar fire originating in SDF-controlled territory. The SDF denied culpability for the event in a statement pushed out quickly after the shelling, blaming “unknown people” for the event and saying that it was “a provocative act aimed at creating strife and damaging the stability of the region.” Before the attack, Turkey had massed troops on its southern border. 

Nawaf Khalil, the head of the Kurdish Center for Studies, told Syria Direct that “currently, a big part of the discussions between the United States and SDF pertain to the Turkish threat, especially because Turkey is trying to destroy the experiment of the Autonomous Administration in the region.”

He also revealed that Mazlum Kobane said that the SDF requires “the withdrawal of Turkey from Afrin, in exchange for the SDF’s acceptance of Turkey being a part of the forces that enter into what is called a safe zone.” 

Negotiation or War? 

The SDF is benefiting from the ongoing dispute between Turkey and the U.S., as well as the possibility of US sanctions against Turkey in retaliation for its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system. According to Khalil, “Turkey is trying to escalate [the situation] to avoid sanctions and American pressure relating to the missile [defense] deal,” though he thinks that Turkey “will not succeed [in its efforts].” 

On the other hand, Ömer Özkizilcik, an analyst at the independent Ankara-based think tank, SETA, believes that “Turkey sees the safe zone negotiations as a chance for a [peaceful] solution. However, [Turkey] might take unilateral military action [to create the safe zone].” 

“[There are] several issues spoiling the negotiations, among which are the actions of CENTCOM in [northeast Syria] and the [possibility] of sanctions [in response to] the purchase of the S-400 missile defense system. If Turkey feels that the negotiations are a waste of time, [it might] resort to the unilateral military option.”

Turkish armored vehicles patrolling in Urfa Province in Southeastern Turkey, 11/7/2019 (Anadolu Agency

Recent troop movement on Turkey’s southern border and the inflammatory speech from Turkish officials about the presence of the SDF east of the Euphrates coincides with recent crackdowns on Syrian refugees in Turkey and the election of a new mayor of Istanbul who is critical of the ruling AKP policy towards Syrian refugees. 

According to Özkizilcik, “the desire of Turkey to set up a safe zone in northeast Syria has several causes, among which are social dynamics [related to] the issue of Syrian refugees. In the case that the safe zone is established, Ankara is expecting the return of one million refugees [to Syria], which will greatly reduce the social tensions in Turkey.” 

Despite all of this, it is still unlikely that Turkey would be willing to enter into a fully-fledged conflict with Kurdish forces in Syria; however, there is a possibility it could launch a limited campaign centering on the town of Tal Abiad, which is located five kilometers within Syria, according to Syria Direct’s sources.
“The SDF is observing Turkish movement in this area,” a member of the SDF’s media office said under the condition of anonymity.

“The goal of the Turkish military reinforcements [is] to take [the area of] al-Sawama’ in Tal Abiad, [due to] its strategic location that overlooks the surrounding areas, as well as connects to the territories of the Autonomous Administration.”

“The Turks will not advance more than that to prevent friction with the American forces,” he added.

These predictions were reiterated by the Kurdish political analyst, Noor al-Deen Omar. “The Turkish mobilization [is just] a way to put pressure on the United States and the SDF to accept Ankara’s conditions,” he said. “However, [Turkey] will not undertake a military operation without the approval of the [United States].