Turkey, US agree to set up operation centre for Syria safe zone

Agreement between NATO allies appears to avert, for now, a threatened Turkish operation into northern Syria.

In this photo taken Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, Turkish and U.S. troops conduct joint patrols around the Syrian town of Manbij, as part of an agreement that aimed to ease tensions between the two NATO all
Turkey had previously accused the US of dragging its feet, and had demanded Washington sever its relations with the YPG [File: Turkish Defence Ministry via/The Associated Press]

Istanbul, Turkey –  Turkey and the United States have agreed to establish a joint operations centre in order to coordinate and manage the setting up of a safe zone in northern Syria.

The agreement on Wednesday came after three days of intense negotiations between officials from the two NATO allies in Turkey’s capital, Ankara.

A joint statement by the Turkish defence ministry and the US embassy in Ankara said the two sides had agreed to set up the Turkey-based operations centre “as soon as possible” and that the safe zone “would become a “peace corridor”, without providing futher details.

It added that the delegations had agreed to address “the rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns”, adding that “every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country”.

The statement did not specify how and when the zone would be created, but it appeared to avert, for the time being, a threatened Turkish operation into the region east of the Euphrates River in Syria.

Safe zone

Northeastern Syria is currently under the control of the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely comprising of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Turkey deems the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which launched an armed campaign against the state 35 years ago.

INSIDE STORY: Can US and Turkey find common ground over Syrian Kurds? (25:46)

Turkey has for weeks been pressing to establish a 30-40km deep zone within Syria, seeking the removal of the YPG from the area and the destruction of their tunnels and fortifications.

The US, on the other hand, has tried to limit the safe zone to 10km.  

Before the conclusion of the talks, Turkish Defence Hulusi Akar reiterated the demands and said Turkey was ready to launch an operation into northern Syria.

“Our plans, preparations, the deployment of our units in the field are all complete. But we said we wanted to act together with our friend and ally, the United States,” he said.

Akar added that Turkey expected the US to end its support of the YPG, which has been Washington’s main ground ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group. 

“We expect our US friends to behave in a spirit of alliance and spirit of strategic partnership,” Akar stated.

His statement came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that the US and Russia had been informed of a planned operation, Turkey’s third incursion into northern Syria in as many as years.

At the closure of the talks, a Kurdish-led administration in Syria’s northeast told Al Jazeera they had not yet discussed the outcome of the talks in Ankara and therefore were unable to comment.

Kobane Civil Administration spokesman Shahin Najib Al Ali told Al Jazeera later on Wednesday that the talks in Ankara were not going to be the last between the US and Turkey.

“They say the meeting has ended and that they made an agreement about the shape of the safe zone, but how this zone will be, what forces will participate in this, until now this is not clear,” Al Ali said.

He also stressed that the region controlled by the Kurdish-led administration was already safe without having Turkish troops there.

“[It has been] safe, for everyone, from 2013 when we removed the regime’s forces from the region. This became the peaceful place for thousands of people who fled from the war, the regime and other military groups.”

The Turkish defence ministry and the foreign of foreign affairs each declined interview requests, saying information would only be disseminated via official written statements.

In this Jan. 28, 2018, file photo, Turkish troops take control of Bursayah hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, Syria. The violence raging o
Turkey has for weeks been pressing to establish a 30-40km deep zone within Syria [File: DHA-Depo Photos via AP]

‘Boots on the ground’

Necdet Ozcelik, a security expert researching terrorism and insurgency, said the conflicting demands of Turkey and the US appeared to have been satisfied, for now

Speaking to Al Jazeera, he argued that the two sides had reached an agreement on the northwestern section of the area east of the Euphrates River.

“Turkish control [there] seems to be welcomed by the US, which also means the YPG/SDF … seem to agree on Turkish presence in the northwestern part that the YPG is controlling right now,” Ozcelik, who is also a former member of Turkey’s special forces, said.

“The total denia [of Turkish presence] by the US would prompt Turkey to launch a large scale military offensive into into YPG positions.”

Ozcelik said he viewed the agreement as moving towards the presence of “Turkish boots on the ground”, in the form of joint patrols with the US and Arab SDF members, particularly in cities such as Tal Abyad and Kobane.

While Ozcelik said he did not anticipate Turkey launching a large-scale military offensive any time soon, he added that there may still be some confrontations on the ground between YPG and Turkish troops.

“There could be some tactics against the Turkish troops such as raids and ambushes when Turkish troops are patrolling,” Ozcelik said.

“These kind of things would definitely escalate the situation and if this happens, the Turkish and military demands would renew and new sets of negotiations would be on the table.”

Build-up on border

In recent weeks, Turkish media reported an increase in the number of Turkish troops along the border, as well as the removal of concrete blocks in the border city of Akcakale, opposite Tal Abyad in Syria, as part of preparations for a possible military crossing.

The reports prompted protests by thousands of people in northern Syria as well as the establishment of of so-called “human shield camps”, where civilians are trained in the use of weapons, in towns along the border with Turkey such as Kobane, Sere Kaniye and Tal Abyad

Talk of a Turkish offensive first began in January, after US President Donald Trump announced he would remove all troops from Syria.

The announcement left the SDF and YPG troops feeling abandoned, as for years they have fought alongside a US-led coalition against ISIL.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in January that Turkey would not delay launching its offensive, its third incursion into northern Syria in as many as years, if the US stalled the withdrawal of its forces.

Discussions about the establishment of a safe-zone have been ongoing since then, with little to no progress made until Wednesday.

The renewed talks came during a crackdown launched last month against unregistered Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies