Ankara expects to develop a common understanding with Washington on a Turkey-friendly safe zone in northern Syria. Are the two allies close to reaching a final deal?
NATO allies the US and Turkey made significant progress on Tuesday regarding the issues centred around the American troop withdrawal from northern Syria.
In a series of meetings with US officials at the anti-Daesh coalition summit, including Pentagon and State Department officials, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the two countries agree on establishing a joint “task force” to ensure smooth withdrawal of the US forces.
“A task force has been established to closely monitor the US withdrawal process from Syria. I personally recommended this force to [US Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo in a previous phone conversation and he looked positively to the idea,” Cavusoglu said, during a press conference in Washington this week.
In light of the US administration's contradictory position of the troop withdrawal, military experts on the conflict view the proposal of establishing a joint task force as a positive development. President Donald Trump originally announced a withdrawal in December last year, but some officials, including Pompeo, put forward a condition of safeguarding members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is led by the PKK-affiliated YPG in the region.
PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey, the US and the EU.
“If this momentum continues, it can play a major role in facilitating the withdrawal of US troops from Syria in a way that does not weaken Turkey's national interests,” said Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasian Center.
Prior to discussing the possibility of forming a joint task force, the two estranged NATO allies debated the likelihood of carving out a safe zone, an idea that initially originated from Turkey, which Washington backburnered for several years before bringing it back to the table in December 2018.
However, the NATO allies cannot agree on the terms of the newly US-proposed safe zone in northern Syria. Trump wants to establish a safe zone between Turkey and the US-backed YPG, monitored by the US and other European allies in the region, while Ankara wants to form and lead a buffer zone to address both internal and external security concerns.
Although the talk of building a safe zone seems to have taken a backseat, the allies are putting all hopes on forming a joint task force.
The most troubling issue between the two allies is the presence of the YPG in the region. Since the YPG is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, Ankara finds Washington's growing partnership with the group unacceptable. In its defence, Washington refuses to acknowledge the clear ties between the YPG and the PKK.
Besides the YPG presence, Turkish policymakers have repeatedly warned of a possible power vacuum if its concerns are not addressed before the American withdrawal. The vacuum, many experts argue, could be filled by armed groups like Daesh and the YPG.
With the joint task force in talks, Cavusoglu urged the US and its allies not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq, where the American withdrawal transitioned into the emergence of Daesh.
“Right now, as the US is pulling out, there should not be such a vacuum [similar to Iraq situation] filled by terrorists and pro-regime forces. Those steps should be taken in a [highly] planned and coordinated manner without repeating the mistakes in Iraq and other places,” Cavusoglu warned.
Can Daesh-like groups appear post-US withdrawal?
There's a broad consensus in foreign policy circles in both the US and Turkey that it was the execution of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, followed by the unplanned US troop withdrawal from the country in 2011, that opened a space for Daesh to move its militants, organise and recruit.
With Hussein and his Baath Party gone, the country went through both economic downfall and social disorder with communities breaking apart along the ethnic and sectarian lines.
Under the US-crafted new constitution, Iraq’s Kurdish dominated northern region tended to lead a government without any consultation with Baghdad. The country’s Shia majority, which had previously been oppressed by Saddam, was empowered by the US and the new constitution favouring that majority meant the Sunni minority was isolated from governance.
As a result, Daesh found recruits amongst the disgruntled Iraqi Sunni youth, and the terrorist group eventually emerged as a formidable force in the country's Sunni majority western territories. They eventually spread to Syria amidst the civil war, even capturing large cities like Mosul.
To avoid an Iraq-like situation and its spillover effect on its borders, Turkey refuses to allow the YPG and SDF to grow in strength in northern Syria,
“It is important that President Trump makes sure the US troop withdrawal from Syria is different from that from Iraq in terms of the US working closely with Turkey to restore stability in Syria,” former US diplomat Matthew Bryza told TRT World.
With the establishment of the joint task force, Ankara expects to develop a common understanding with Washington so that projects like creating a Turkey-friendly safe zone can also be discussed. The task force would likely also have a common vision on the future of the Syrian regime.
“We are committed to the enduring defeat of [Daesh] and Al Qaeda, an irreversible political solution to the Syrian conflict…and the removal of all Iranian-backed forces from Syria,” said a US official, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But Washington's withdrawal plan as promised by Trump to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 14, is facing stiff resistance from within the US administration, with some officials resorting to obfuscation.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, backtracked on a previous statement on the YPG, in which he called them a terrorist organisation, and offered certain conditions such as protecting the YPG from the US pull-out, which Ankara found unacceptable.
Most recently, General Joseph Votel, the head of American military’s Central Command and the top general watching the Middle East front, suggested that the US has plans to protect the YPG, stating that the withdrawal has neither conditions nor a timeline.
Byrza said that although Trump's promise of troop pull-out marked a moment of the US president "choosing its Turkish Ally over terrorists," the subsequent statements coming from certain quarters of the US government suggest the Trump administration is “highly confused” as to what it wants to deliver and achieve in northern Syria.
In his recent statement, Cavusoglu also echoed a similar sentiment.
“Trump’s withdrawal decision was also a surprise for America. As a result, we have witnessed in our recent meetings [in Washington] that there is no tangible plan and vision. There are different ideas and views. We also presented our own proposals and ideas,” Cavusoglu said.
Bryza continued saying that Washington's contradictory stance resulted in "confusion and misunderstanding, leading Washington's foreign policy elites to misperceive that the YPG/PYD is the legitimate representative of Syria's Kurdish community”.
However, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the Pentagon has set an April deadline for a complete US withdrawal from northern Syria.
For the former Turkish ambassador to Ethiopia, Murat Bilhan, the withdrawal plan sounds more like a ploy and less like a genuine policy.
“A 150-vehicle convoy loaded with military equipment has just entered [northeastern] Syria,” said Bilhan, referring to the most recent US military supply to the YPG. Bilhan was also the former president of Strategic Research Centre at Turkish foreign ministry.
“If you are really evacuating Syria, why are you supplying the weapons to YPG?" Bilhan said, questioning Washington's erratic approach toward Turkey.
Erdogan has recently warned that if Washington does not remove the YPG from Manbij - a contentious town located to the west of the Euphrates River, where the US, the Syrian regime, Turkey, and Russia run their own military posts - Ankara will do so in a few weeks.
But since Cavusoglu’s suggestion, a new momentum has emerged between the allies, regarding establishing a task force and implementing the Manbij road map, which is based on removing the YPG and SDF bases from west of the Euphrates River, and means US-Turkey ties are still on track.
"There has been an acceleration when compared to the past ... in particular, the US administration and Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo are asking for immediate implementation of this [roadmap]," Cavusoglu said.