U.S., Turkey Launch Joint Patrols In Northeast Syria
The United States and Turkey on 8 September began joint patrols in north-eastern Syria aimed at easing tensions between Ankara and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, who battled the Islamic State jihadist group.
Six Turkish armoured vehicles crossed the border to join U.S. forces in Syria for their first joint patrol under a deal reached between Washington and Ankara, an AFP journalist reported.
Two helicopters flew over the area as the Turkish vehicles drove through an opening in the concrete wall separating the two countries.
They then headed west along with the same number of American vehicles, along with an ambulance and a pick-up, for the joint operation, before crossing back into Turkey.
The Turkish defence ministry said drones were also deployed. The agreement reached on 7 August aims to establish a “safe zone” between the Turkish border and the Syrian areas east of the Euphrates river controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Syrian Kurdish forces began withdrawing from along the Turkish border in late August. The YPG forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces - a key partner of Washington in the fight against IS jihadists in Syria.
But Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The PKK, which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, is blacklisted as a terrorist group by Ankara, the U.S. and the European Union.
Washington’s support for the SDF has been a major point of friction with fellow NATO member Turkey.
As the regional fight against IS winds down, the prospect of a U.S. military withdrawal has stoked Kurdish fears of another Turkish attack.
“We are implementing the agreement and we have no problem with it as long as it prevents war,” said Riyad Khamis, the head of an SDF military council in the border town of Tal Abyad.
Although they led the U.S.-backed fight against IS, Syria’s Kurds have largely stayed out of Syria’s eight-year civil war, instead building their own autonomous institutions in areas they control.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to launch an operation against the YPG in Syria unless progress is made on setting up the safe zone.
Erdoğan said his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump had promised the buffer would be 32 kilometres (20 miles) wide.
Turkish army chief Gen Yasar Guler told Gen Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, in a phone call on Saturday that the safe zone must be set up without delay, the Turkish defence ministry said.
A joint centre of operations was recently established as part of the agreement. Turkey carried out unilateral offensives in northern Syria against IS in 2016 and the YPG in 2018.
Ankara hopes the safe zone will smooth the way for the return of some of the more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, but experts say the situation remains unclear.
“We may have joint patrols but we still don’t have a joint understanding of what the safe zone is,” said Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“America sees the safe zone as a way to preserve our relationship with the SDF and preserve the SDF’s autonomy. Turkey sees the safe zone as a step toward ending them both.”
Turkey and the United States agreed on Wednesday (7 August) to establish a joint operation centre in Turkey to coordinate and manage a planned safe zone in northeast Syria, a move that appeared to reduce the chance of imminent Turkish military action.
The two countries gave few details of the deal, which followed three days of talks between military delegations and months of stalemate over how far the safe zone should extend into Syria and who should command forces patrolling it.
The proposed zone aims to secure a strip of land stretching more than 400 km along Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey, much of it controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia that fought with U.S. support against Islamic State militants.
Ankara sees the YPG as terrorists who pose a grave security threat and has demanded that the United States sever its ties with the Kurdish militia.
Turkey has twice sent forces into northern Syria in the last three years to drive back YPG and Islamic State fighters from the border, and President Tayyip Erdogan had said on Sunday a third incursion was imminent, targeting YPG-controlled territory east of the Euphrates river.
Speaking at a news conference in Ankara on Wednesday alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, Erdogan said that talks with the United States had progressed in a “really positive” direction.
The process regarding the safe zone would begin with the operation centre being formed, he said.
“What really mattered here was the issue of this step being taken on the east of the Euphrates, and this is now being realised together with the Americans,” he said.
The two countries, allies in NATO, said they agreed on the “rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns”.
They also said the safe zone should be a “peace corridor,” and that every effort would be made so that Syrians displaced by war could return to their country.
Neither side said whether they had overcome two main points that had divided them.
Washington has proposed a two-tier safe zone, with a 5-kilometre demilitarised strip bolstered by an additional 9 km cleared of heavy weapons - stretching in total less than half the distance into Syria that Turkey is seeking.
Turkey has also said it must have ultimate authority over the zone, another point of divergence with the United States.
The Turkish Defence Ministry said it would be giving no further details for now of the agreement. News of the deal helped the lira hit its strongest level this week, of 5.469 to the dollar.
Turkish forces deployed
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said earlier that Washington was shifting closer to Ankara’s views on the proposed safe zone.
He said Turkey’s plans for a military deployment there were complete. “But we said we wanted to act together with our friend and ally, the United States,” state-owned Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying.
Three Turkish officials who spoke to Reuters this week had expressed impatience over the talks and warned that Ankara was ready to act on its own.
A top Syrian Kurdish official told Reuters on Wednesday that any Turkish attack on Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria would spark a “big war”.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced last year that U.S. forces would leave Syria and began an initial withdrawal, a decision applauded by Ankara, and the two NATO allies agreed to create the safe zone.
On Tuesday, a US Defense Department report warned about a revival of Islamic State in Syria’s northeast, saying US-backed Kurdish groups were not equipped to handle the resurgent jihadist cells without US support.
“The partial (U.S.) drawdown (has) occurred at a time when these fighters need additional training and equipping to build trust with local communities and to develop the human-based intelligence necessary to confront resurgent (Islamic State) cells and insurgent capabilities in Syria,” the report said.