Syria hits out at US-Turkish plan to establish ‘safe zone’ in north

Buffer zone to separate Turkish and US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria

 Kurdish YPG militiamen taking part in a military parade in Qamishli, Syria, on March 28th. Turkey insists the YPG is a threat as it is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

Kurdish YPG militiamen taking part in a military parade in Qamishli, Syria, on March 28th. Turkey insists the YPG is a threat as it is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

 

Syria has criticised a US-Turkish plan to establish a buffer zone to separate Turkish and US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria and castigated Syrian Kurds for capitulating to Ankara’s threats to invade the border area and expel them.

“Syria categorically and blatantly rejects the agreement between the American and Turkish occupiers on the establishment of a so-called safe zone,” a foreign ministry spokesman said. He accused Syria’s Kurds of becoming a “tool” of Washington and Ankara and urged the Kurds to return to government control the 25 per cent of Syria they hold.

The spokesman said a “safe zone” “serves Turkey’s expansionist ambitions” and violates Syrian sovereignty.

As Turkey marshalled tanks and troops along the border with Syria in preparation for an invasion, US defence secretary Mark Esper warned Ankara that “any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable”. He said the US seeks to “work out an arrangement to address their concerns”.

After three days of tense discussions intended to avert a crisis between Nato allies, Turkish and US defence officials agreed on Wednesday to set up a joint control centre to prepare for the creation of a corridor or “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border. No specifics were given on the width or length of the safe zone or how it is to be managed.

Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar said the Pentagon team was “coming closer to our views”. The Kurds were cautious. “This deal may mark the start of a new approach but we still need more details. We will evaluate the agreement on details and facts, not headlines,” senior Kurdish official Aldar Khalil said.

Isis fight

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have provided essential ground troops in the US-led campaign in Syria against Islamic State (also known as Isis). However, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists the YPG is a threat to Turkey as it is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has mounted an insurgency over the last 35 years. Turkey cannot tolerate Kurdish separatism wherever it rises.

Between August 2016 and early 2018, Turkey established an occupation zone west of the Euphrates river and, with US and, perhaps, Kurdish agreement, it intends to create a YPG-exclusion zone to the east of the river.

Erdogan began speaking of an offenive after president Donald Trump said he would withdraw its troops from Syria, leaving the YPG exposed.

Ankara’s stated objective is to drive YPG fighters from a 30-40km-wide strip of Syrian territory along Turkey’s border, deploy surrogate Free Syrian Army forces in the area and settle thousands of Syrian refugees there. The US initially proposed a 0-15km-wide corridor.

Turkey’s primary but unstated objective is to erase “Rojava”, the unilaterally declared autonomous Syrian Kurdish area along the Turkish border. Its existence inspires Turkish Kurds to step up their struggle for self-rule.

Kurdish nationalists, determined to found their own state, dub Rojava Western Kurdistan; southeastern Turkey, Northern Kurdistan; northwestern Iran, Eastern Kurdistan, and Iraq’s Kurdish region, Southern Kurdistan.

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