Specific details of the Turkey-US agreement over safe-zones in Syria have not been officially announced, but there is hardly an entity which hasn't presented its own version about what happened behind closed doors.
The deal between Turkey and the US, to establish a safe-zone in northern Syria along the Turkish-Syrian border, has spurred the public into a constant debate about the nature of the deal.
While official sources have released very little about the deal, it is rumours, alleged leaks and local reporting that has dominated the perceptions surrounding the agreement between the US and Turkey. The battle over controlling the discourse regarding the safe-zone deal will continue as long as the process is opaque and leaves room for one-sided framing by the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, or the US. The PKK has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the European Union.
Since the announcement of the agreement, many speculated about the vague public statement. While some argued that the details of the deal were not yet set, others thought that Turkey and the US agreed to keep the details away from the public.
However, since then alleged leaks or insider information have tried to create a narrative over the safe-zone deal. For instance, Ferhat Abdi Sahin, the head of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and PKK veteran have talked to the PKK media outlet ANHA and claimed that Turkey wouldn’t enter city centres; the depth of the safe-zone would be 5km only extending to 15km in a specific location between Tal Abyad and Rasulayn; that Turkey would neither enter the airspace over northeast Syria; nor establish bases or a permanent presence in the safe-zone.
Later, a platform named North-Press Agency published alleged leaks from the US diplomat Edward J Stafford who served as a military adviser to the US Embassy in Ankara. According to whom, Russia and the US had agreed to limit Turkey's influence in northern Syria by pushing Turkey into the corner in Idlib.
The alleged leaks of the North-Press Agency continued to base their information on a YPG source who claimed that Turkey won’t have a permanent presence in northern Syria and that the YPG is de-facto a part of the negotiations. However, anonymous Turkish officials talking to Bloomberg said that Turkey would establish four bases ahead of the creation of a local security force.
Meanwhile, YPG-aligned or YPG-affiliated local sources started reporting about the withdrawal of YPG elements from the border region from Tal Abyad to Rasulayn handing it over to the allegedly local military councils formed by the YPG itself.
Even the narrative over the alleged withdrawal of the YPG from the border strip is dominated by the YPG’s views as the spokesman of the SDF, Mustafa Bali, told Reuters that the deal creates a ‘security mechanism’, not safe zone, and that the strip would vary along the border between 5 and 14 km and will include rural areas or military positions, not cities or towns. Reuters quote neither Turkish nor US officials.
On the other side, the Turkish media had only one alleged leak coming from Muharrem Sarikaya to the Turkish Newspaper HaberTurk. Sarıkaya claimed to have received leaks that the safe-zone will be divided into three sectors. The first will be 5km deep with a joint Turkish-American presence. The second will be 9km with only the US and an additional 4km as a third sector from which the YPG's heavy weaponry will be withdrawn.
Shortly after this alleged leak, the Turkish Defence Ministry released a statement denying the contents of media reports about the safe-zone agreement between the US and Turkey.
Regardless of the truth behind each of the alleged leaks and rumours, the battle over how to frame the safe-zone agreement continues, and will continue. Even the director of the Middle East Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute accused Turkish officials of distortions and one-sided framing. He also claimed that Turkish officials’ statements are only an interpretation and signalling of future demands.
The main problem with such assessments is that no one can say with confidence which are accurate or inaccurate, as the public simply does not know the details.
In contrast, the agreements in the Astana summits were always followed by a release of a detailed joint declaration to the public, but the safe-zone deals don't come with the same declaration.
If Turkish and American officials do not publish the details of the deal to the public, attempts to dominate perception will continue. The attempt to frame a one-sided narrative will continue, which could ultimately weaken Turkey's position in the execution of the safe-zone.
In the past, the US has shown the efficacy of dominating perceptions over safe-zones. While the 20-mile depth of the safe-zone was declared by the US president himself on Twitter, with a carefully framed statement by US officials, analysts and media, the 20-mile depth of the safe-zone later became only a Turkish demand.
The safe-zone discussions between the US and Turkey took long, and the negotiations stalled for a long time. Only the threat of a unilateral Turkish military operation into northeast Syria accelerated the process.
The scepticism among the Turkish public and Turkish officials remains. The fear of a new Manbij scenario in which the implementation of the deal will be torpedoed is high. In this regard, attempts by the YPG or American analysts and experts to occupy the discourse over the safe-zone might only fuel scepticism and bring us back to the day before the safe-zone deal. It is important here to state that the Turkish Defence Minister underlined that plan B and plan C remain if the US might again opt to waste Turkey's time.
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