United States (Kurdistan24) – The US remains committed to protecting its local partners in Syria, the US Defense Department affirmed on Thursday.
“Our Turkish allies and our SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) partners” have “legitimate issues that they’re discussing, and those discussions are ongoing,” Acting Department of Defense Spokesperson, Charles Summers, said in response to a question from Kurdistan 24.
Earlier on Thursday, Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish Presidential Spokesperson, told reporters following a cabinet meeting, “Turkey expects the US pullout from Syria to continue and a safe zone to be established under Turkey's control.”
This was the first cabinet meeting since Kalin, along with the Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s Defense Minister, held discussions in Washington focused on Ankara’s intended purchase of the Russian air defense system, the S-400.
Pressed on the US view of Kalin’s statement, particularly in regards to Turkish control of a safe zone in northeastern Syria, Summers replied that “engagements to date” with Turkey on the issue had been “productive.”
“We are confident that together with the Coalition, we will ensure a lasting defeat for ISIS in Syria,” Summers continued as he also listed three other objectives the Trump administration is pursuing as it draws down US forces in Syria: “preventing a security vacuum that destabilizes the area; addressing Turkey’s legitimate security concerns;”—and, thirdly, “protecting our partners in the fight against ISIS.”
It, thus, seems unlikely that the US will agree to Turkey’s demand that it control the “safe zone” in Syria.
Dr. Amy Holmes, a Fellow of the Middle East Program at Washington’s Wilson Center and an Associate Professor at the American University of Cairo, recently spent five weeks in SDF-controlled Syria, which, as she stressed in a recent interview with the Washington Kurdish Institute, represents a very large territory.
One-third of Syria is under SDF control, while large numbers of Syrians from areas under regime control have fled to the SDF areas. Some 450,000 Syrians have found refuge from Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Deir al-Zor governorate alone.
In Washington and other western capitals, Holmes explained, the perception exists that Kurds are the only part of the population that does not want Turkish troops in Syria. But Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, feel the same way.
Christian Arabs feel threatened because of their religion, she said. Memory is long, and Syria’s Christians were persecuted when the Ottoman empire collapsed and the Turkish Republic was established.
Although the dimensions of the proposed “safe zone,” have not been determined, Turkish officials sometimes suggest it will encompass a broad swathe of land, and that has Muslim Arabs as concerned as Christians.
Turkey has earned a bad reputation for its mistreatment of Syrian civilians.
In Tabqa—many miles south of the Turkish border—Holmes met with the civil council to discuss humanitarian needs. However, one Arab sheikh “actually began his opening remarks by talking about Afrin” and Turkey’s intervention there, she explained.
“We don’t want that to happen in Tabqa,” the sheikh affirmed. Thus, as Holmes noted, “Even Arabs who don’t necessarily have a connection to Afrin,” saw what happened there, and “don’t want it to happen in their cities or their region.”
The people of eastern Syria, she explained, were “very shocked” at first by President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that all US troops would be leaving Syria. However, that was soon modified to a decision to leave 200 US troops in Syria, which was then doubled to 400.
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People were “very relieved,” as the numbers changed, Holmes said. Above all, Syrians understood that even a small US presence meant that the “de facto no-fly zone” would remain in effect.
Holmes, however, stressed the need for the US to explain what it intends to do. The SDF, as well as Syrians living in the east of the country, “need to know.” After all, their futures, even their lives, may well depend on what the US does.
NGOS providing humanitarian and reconstruction assistance also need to understand Washington’s plans, she said, as do other countries, like France and Britain, which depend on the US to provide the infrastructure that sustains the Coalition presence in Syria.
“It’s absolutely vital for everyone involved,” Holmes concluded, for the US to “clarify its position.”
Editing by Nadia Riva