US and Turkey discuss northeast Syria, amid serious questions

The US and Turkey have begun following up on their agreement last week on northeast Syria—the area liberated from the Islamic State and now administered by the Kurdish-led...

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - The US and Turkey have begun following up on their agreement last week on northeast Syria—the area liberated from the Islamic State and now administered by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)

A six-man US team has arrived in Turkey to set up a Joint Operations Center (JOC) to implement the agreement. Few details have emerged, however, and those that have, come mostly from the Turkish side.

As Turkey’s pro-government media has stated, Ankara seeks a 20-mile wide corridor, along the Syrian border, which would be cleared of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG.) The YPG provides the military leadership for the SDF, but Ankara considers it a terrorist organization, essentially the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK.)

Moreover, this must be done according to a tight time line. “If the establishment of such a zone is delayed, [Turkey] will take cross-border military action to remove the terrorist threat at its southern border,” the pro-government Daily Sabah reported on Tuesday.

Asked about the US position on these discussions, Pentagon spokesperson, Cmdr. Sean Robertson, told Kurdistan 24, “Military-to-military talks in Ankara last week reached an initial understanding on a security mechanism along the Syrian border,” which “addresses Turkish security concerns, maintains security in northeast Syria, so ISIS cannot reemerge, and allows the Coalition and our partners to remain focused on achieving the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Questions, however, are being raised about whether these talks will accomplish those objectives. Most notably, Gen. Joseph Votel (US Army, retired), who, until this spring, headed CENTCOM, which oversaw the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, along with Gonul Tol, Director of Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, have warned of the dangers in the Turkish position.

“Imposing a twenty-mile-deep safe zone east of the Euphrates,” they wrote in The National Interest, would displace “more than 90% of the Syrian Kurdish population.” It would exacerbate “what is already an extremely challenging humanitarian situation” and create “an environment for increased conflict that would require an extended deployment of military forces.”

Almost certainly, Votel remains in close touch with his former colleagues, and those words of caution echo a recently released report from the Pentagon’s Inspector General (IG.) The IG reports draw on the observations of commanders in the field. They are required by the US Congress; are issued on a quarterly basis; and are often characterized by an unusual frankness.

The latest such IG report, covering the period from April 1 to June 30, was released earlier this month. The Islamic State, it said, had “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria.” The recent drawdown of US forces in Syria, it explained, has compounded the difficulties in confronting security challenges there—that was written before Ankara forced the US into these negotiations, by mobilizing forces on the Syrian border and threatening a cross-border attack.

READ MORE: US warns Turkey against attacking northeast Syria

One particularly controversial element in the discussions is Turkey’s characterization of the proposed security zone inside Syria as a “peace corridor,” where Syrian refugees now living in Turkey can settle.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million refugees. They have become a source of resentment among the Turkish population, contributing to a drop in the popularity of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

Turkish officials say they will resettle Syrian refugees in the “peace corridor” and claim that the US has agreed to that point. The US position, however, is not so clear.

At the conclusion of last week’s negotiations, the US embassy in Ankara released a statement on August 7, listing three general principals that the two sides had agreed upon.

The third was: “the safe zone shall become a peace corridor, and every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country.”

The vaguely worded statement left important questions unanswered: which Syrians might move into the “peace corridor”? Those originally from that area? Or any Syrian refugee in Turkey? And how many?

Given the numbers involved, the possibility exists that Turkey might seek to engineer a major population shift by transferring Syrian Arabs into the zone and, thereby, dividing the Kurdish-populated area of Turkey from the Kurdish-populated area of Syria.

As Kurdistan 24’s Hisham Arafat, himself a Syrian Kurd, warned, “The central area of Syria” is the “most conservative” and “most extremist” and “bringing people from those areas of Syria to Hasakah,” in the northeast, “or to Deir al-Zor,” some 200 kilometers to the south, “would be a very big demographic change.”

READ MORE: US and Turkey reach accord, but concerns of Syrian Kurds continue

“It would be a disaster,” he continued, “very similar” to what the Syrian regime did in the 1960s.

However, no other entity in the US government—beyond the embassy in Ankara—has used that language or confirmed that the US has agreed to that point.

Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed last week’s agreement in a tweet, but did not mention a “peace corridor” or the movement of Syrian refugees into that area. Rather, he referred to a “sustainable security mechanism.”

Following last week’s agreement, a Pentagon spokesperson provided Kurdistan 24 a statement. Similarly, the Pentagon statement did not mention a “peace corridor” into which Syrian refugees would move.

On August 8, when State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus briefed the press, she began by welcoming the US-Turkish agreement. Her statement, similarly, did not mention a “peace corridor,” nor the movement of Syrian refugees.

But, later in the briefing, when Kurdistan 24 sought clarification about the embassy’s statement on the movement of Syrian refugees into a “peace corridor” and whether it accurately reflected the US position, Ortagus provided no clear answer.

“It’s the US position that we do not support any sort of forced or coerced relocations of refugees or IDPs,” she said. “If and when conditions allow any refugee who wants to return to their destination, it must be of their own choosing and must be voluntary, safe, and dignified.”

Kurdistan 24 responded that the transfer of a large number of Syrians to the area could bring about a major demographic change, and she agreed.

“It certainly would,” Ortagus said, but added, “I think that any sort of discussions in fine detail on the safe zone are still ongoing.”

Subsequently, Kurdistan 24 pursued the issue with a Pentagon spokesman and got much the same answer.

The US opposes forced population transfers, but it will not say, if it opposes the voluntary movement of people that would result in a significant demographic shift.

Yet that would seem a danger. On Wednesday, Turkey’s official Anadolu Agency published an account of interviews with two Syrian refugees in Turkey. Neither came from northeast Syria, but both were happy to move there.

“It [northern Syria] might not be my hometown, but it is part of my country,” a man from Idlib told the news agency. Another refugee, from Homs, said, "My family and I would return home, it does not matter whether it is north or south [of Syria], if we had a chance.”

Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and now an instructor at The Institute of World Politics, noted that any significant population shifts would be very destabilizing and compound the danger posed by the Islamic State’s resurgence.

Citing the recent IG report, Davis told Kurdistan 24, “ISIS is coming back. It’s not defeated!”

Davis explained that US counterinsurgency doctrine requires that a local political authority, accepted as legitimate by the population, has to be established in an area liberated from an enemy, like the Islamic State.

“Without that,” Davis said, “the threat will only return.”

Nicholas Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, expressed a similar view.

“The Turks are learning that with each threat of invading northern and eastern Syria, they are able to coerce the US into agreeing to more of their demands,” Heras told Kurdistan 24.

“A  good example is that now Turkish soldiers will be allowed inside areas that are east of the Euphrates. But there is not much more leeway the US team can give Turkey, if the Americans expect the SDF to be a viable entity moving forward,” he concluded.