The clock is ticking fast and Washington can no longer afford to ignore Turkey's security obstacles and continue its support of the PKK terror group's Syrian affiliates.
As the US Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, is in Turkey to discuss Syria, counterterrorism and regional security, the State Department official is facing a tough balancing act.
Although the safe-zone negotiations in northeast Syria are at the top of Jeffrey’s diplomatic agenda, the outcome of the meeting may deflect Washington's outrage over Ankara's recent purchase of S-400 and put the focus back on Turkey's broader role as a peacemaker in the Middle East.
With the US pursuing an indistinct policy in northern Syria, which includes arming and supporting the PKK terror group's Syrian wing the YPG, the question over who will control the safe zone in the war-affected region continues to haunt US-Turkish bilateral ties.
In its more than 30-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK – listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU – has been responsible for the death of some 40,000 people, including women and children. The PKK is the parent organisation that goes by different names in different countries. Like the PJAK in Iran, PCDK in Iraq and the PYD in Syria. The PYD’s armed wing is the YPG.
A few hours before Jeffrey landed in Turkey, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu came out with a strict warning: “If the safe zone is not established and threats towards our country continue, we will launch the operation in the east of the Euphrates.”
Turkey demands full control of a deeper and broader safe zone, but the US argues for a smaller one without any decisive Turkish control. Also, the fact that the Manbij Roadmap wasn’t implemented for over a year adds further strain to the US-Turkish ties.
Therefore, Jeffrey's negotiations with Turkish officials come with baggage and the clock is ticking towards escalation.
Jeffrey is facing various challenges. The most pressing issues include the competing foreign policies and the United States Central Command (CENTCOM)'s mischief in Syria, as well as the US Senate's outrage over Turkey's purchase of the S-400. All these elements could scuttle Jeffrey's attempts to reach an agreement between the two estranged NATO allies.
So far, the US has already suspended Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme, and the US Senate continues to pressure President Donald Trump to enforce the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on Turkey, despite Trump’s desire to not take such a harsh measure. If Trump can’t withstand the pressure from the Senate, as the laws are binding, or the Senate declares additional rulings to impose sanctions on Turkey over the S-400 purchase, the move might trigger a unilateral Turkish military operation in Syria. In this case, Jeffrey's efforts to mend ties with Ankara would become meaningless.
CENTCOM's policies in Syria and its continuing support to the YPG-dominated SDF could be another spoiler for Jeffrey’s peacemaking efforts. CENTCOM has officially requested a budget of $300 million to support the YPG with arms, ammunition and training. Many CENTCOM officials have openly sympathised with the YPG and the PKK; even former US special envoy Brett McGurk has unabashedly advocated for the group since his resignation. Therefore, CENTCOM may sabotage any agreement between the US and Turkey. Many analysts have already taken note of CENTCOM Commander General K. McKenzie's visit to Ferhat Abdi Sahin, the adoptive son of the PKK founding leader Abdullah Ocalan. Sahin is a wanted PKK terrorist and the top commander of the SDF.
The timing of McKenzie's meeting with Sahin coincides with Jeffrey's visit to Ankara. CENTCOM has been and is still undermining Jeffrey, and if CENTCOM succeeds in spoiling any safe zone agreement or the implementation of a possible agreement, Turkey will be pushed to take unilateral action against the YPG in Syria.
A key part of the discussions is the nature of local forces, which hasn’t yet become clear. The Turkish side fears that the formation of 15 different allegedly local military councils by the YPG as a way of rebranding will be an attempt to promote them as new ‘local forces’.
Such movements, in line with the recent internalisation attempts of the alleged SDF, called the North and East Syria Federation, are a major obstacle for Jeffrey in his attempts to convince the Turkish side. The so-called North and East Syria Federation signed several documents with delegations of states to hand over Daesh captives in their prisons, signed documents with the United Nations addressing the security of children and lastly signed a deal with an American company for the exploration of oil in YPG-held areas of Syria. These developments clearly indicate that while Turkey is negotiating with the US, the YPG is further entrenching itself and attempting to progress to become a recognised entity. Therefore, the developments on the ground in Syria are torpedoing the negotiation process and risking Turkish military action in order to prevent a PKK statelet in Syria, with Turkey perhaps fearing that the US is only trying to buy time in order to facilitate events on the ground.
Regardless of the above-mentioned obstacles, the clock is ticking for James Jeffrey.
The current safe-zone negotiations between Turkey and the US might be the last as Turkey’s patience with the US won’t last forever. Jeffrey is trying to fulfil a mission impossible, but in the unlikely case of his success, this development might salvage Turkish-American relations and open a new era in which both sides will again trust each other.
US support of the YPG was one of the main damaging points to the relations, its resolution can open the way for much more. Jeffrey might focus on one single topic which is the case of Syria in his negotiations over a safe-zone with Turkey, but actually, his efforts could be the beginning of a new era or more likely, his journey may fail as his attempts will be overshadowed by the general trend in US-Turkish relations.
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