WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan24) – Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik spoke last Thursday on the challenges facing Turkey and the US in Syria.
The SETA Foundation, a think-tank focused on Turkish issues, hosted the event, which followed Isik’s meeting that morning at the Pentagon with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
During the SETA conference, Kurdistan24 asked Isik whether Turkey still wanted to see a safe zone in Syria and if that issue had come up in his meeting with Mattis.
“This is what we have wanted,” and “this is what we communicated,” Isik replied. But “we were not on the same page as the Obama administration and couldn’t proceed.” Nonetheless, “we are insistent on this matter.”
Isik explained it was very important for people to be able to live “in a safe zone in Syrian territory” in humane conditions.
He added a safe zone is “important to prevent possible future waves of migration” and pointed to the continued fighting in Syria, including the regime’s use of chemical weapons in Idlib Province.
The issue of a Syrian safe zone needs to be addressed “as soon as possible,” the minister stated, warning of a “high risk” of “another wave of migration.”
Last year, the European Union (EU) concluded an agreement with Ankara on controlling and limiting the number of migrants leaving Turkey for Greece and the EU. Europeans worry Turkey may not stick to that agreement, particularly with the deterioration in relations following Ankara’s April 16 referendum.
“We have been accommodating more than three million Syrian refugees,” Isik said, and we “lack the capacity” to care for any more people.
“A new wave of migration” could become a “burden on European countries too,” he cautioned.
Nonetheless, Isik did not raise the issue of a Syrian safe zone in his meeting with Mattis. We had an “intensive agenda,” and there were “more urgent issues” to discuss, the minister said. So, we “did not have time” to discuss the matter.
On the campaign trail, US President Donald Trump promoted the idea of a Syrian safe zone and claimed the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states would pay for it. Soon after assuming office, Trump ordered the State Department and Pentagon to produce such a plan by the end of this month.
However, few details have emerged about that plan, and the Pentagon is wary of deeper involvement in Syria beyond defeating the Islamic State (IS). Most likely, Isik did not raise the issue of a Syrian safe zone with Mattis because he is aware of the Pentagon’s reluctance on that score.
The single biggest issue dividing Ankara and Washington regarding Syria is the US alliance with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in fighting IS. Turkey views the YPG an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Although Ankara and Washington both consider the PKK a terrorist group, Washington distinguishes between the YPG and PKK. The Turkish Defense Minister did raise that issue with Mattis, and as he made clear, he failed to move his American counterpart.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany