Turkey demands smaller Syria safe zone in US negotiations

A man looks at burning cars after airstrikes hit the northern town of Maaret Al-Numan, as Syrian regime forces continued their military offensive in Idlib province on Thursday. (AP)
Updated 30 August 2019

Turkey demands smaller Syria safe zone in US negotiations

  • Erdogan under intense domestic pressure to ensure national security

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that Turkey would demand a smaller safe zone in Syria.

His comments follow meetings with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Erdogan said: “I told Defense Minister Hulusi Akar that we should begin to work with what (the Americans had proposed). Then we can do what is necessary in the future. The agreement we have reached with the US is a correct step toward establishing a safe zone and removing the YPG from the east of the Euphrates.”

He also warned that “Turkish personnel and armored carriers are all on the border. We are in a position to do everything at any moment.”

Erdogan recently announced that Turkish troops will soon be deployed in the safe zone, and pledged that he would not let the US delay it being established.

In early August, Ankara and Washington agreed to set up a safe zone between the Turkish border and Syrian land controlled by the US-backed YPG militia. They also established a joint operations center, which has reached full operational capacity.  

Joint US-Turkey patrols are also expected to begin soon under the latest deal between the two counties. Akar announced that joint US-Turkey helicopter flights had been launched and destruction of YPG fortifications had started in northern Syria.

US President Donald Trump and Erdogan spoke by phone on Wednesday to discuss trade and the humanitarian situation in Idlib.

Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency said the leaders agreed to cooperate to protect civilians in Idlib after jets believed to be Syrian or Russian struck an opposition-held city in northwest Syria.

According to Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, shortening the safe zone means that Turkey no longer has the upper hand in negotiations with the US.

“Under the current circumstances, Ankara concentrates on getting the maximum gain in Syria’s rebel-held stronghold of Idlib province and the eastern part of the Euphrates. Turkey doesn’t want to pit against the US in this critical region,” he told Arab News.

Orhan added that there are more important dynamics than the depth of the safe zone.

“The role and the responsibilities assigned to Turkish forces, whether they will have an observatory role or not, are of key importance. There would also be other technical details, such as permanent bases or observation points that might be established in the region,” he said.

Orhan said that the depth of safe zone would depend on the population structure and the geographical characteristics of the region.

“It would be deeper along Arab areas like Tal Abyad Ras Al-Ain, and narrower in Kurdish zones,” he said.

FASTFACT

Turkey and US established a joint operations center, which has reached full operational capacity. Joint patrols are also expected to begin soon under the latest deal between the two countries.

According to Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East security analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security, the change in the safe zone depth shows that Ankara understands that there are limits to what it can get from the Americans in northern and eastern Syria.

“Erdogan’s main objective is for Turkish forces to patrol northern and eastern Syria, and the Americans are about to give him that,” he told Arab News. Heras added that Erdogan is under intense domestic political pressure to resolve issues in Syria, and he wants to show that he can ensure Turkey’s national security.

“Turkish forces would participate in patrols with other nations, especially the US. Turkey’s role in northern and eastern Syria would be largely symbolic and intended to satisfy Erdogan,” he said.

Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces continued their military offensive in Idlib, seizing a cluster of villages on the southeastern edges of the province on Thursday as the civilian death toll rose.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops captured three small villages as they continued their assault. It suggested that the next target will be the opposition-held town of Maaret Al-Numan, which lies near the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

Last week, troops seized the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which sits on the highway.

Idlib is the Syrian opposition’s final stronghold. President Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, are determined to recapture it. For now, their main aim is to reopen the M5 highway and they have been pounding towns and villages that lie near that route. Opening the highway would shorten travel times between the country’s two largest cities by two hours.

The Syrian Civil Defense group, which opposes the Assad regime, said airstrikes on Maaret Al-Numan on Wednesday killed 12 people and wounded 34. The group, also known as the White Helmets, released a video showing the rescue operations. In the footage, bodies can be seen trapped in a collapsed building after it was targeted by jets.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, also reported 12 deaths, including two women and six children, and said 30 people were wounded.

The UN said that over 550 civilians had been killed and over 400,000 people displaced from the Hama and Idlib provinces since the offensive began in late April. Almost half of those displaced, some of them multiple times, live in camps and reception centers in the open air or under trees.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that “satellite imagery shows entire towns and villages have been razed to the ground, while dozens of communities have been emptied.”

He called on the warring parties to ensure the safety of civilians as clashes, shelling and airstrikes escalate.

Dujarric added that three-quarters of the 3 million people being impacted by the violence are women and children.


US troops at Syria base say they’ll keep pressure on Daesh

Updated 12 November 2019

US troops at Syria base say they’ll keep pressure on Daesh

A BASE IN EASTERN SYRIA: At a base in eastern Syria, a senior US coalition commander said Monday that American troops who remain in Syria are redeploying to bases, including in some new locations, and working with the Kurdish-led forces to keep up the pressure on the Daesh militants and prevent the extremists from resurging or breaking out of prisons.
The commander, Air Force Maj. Gen. Eric T. Hill, said even though Bradley armored vehicles have arrived in eastern Syria, the mission’s focus has not changed. He said the “force mix,” including the mechanized armored vehicles deployed in Syria for the first time since the war against Daesh, has an array of capabilities to deny Daesh the chance to regroup.
“The mission still continues. And Daesh is trying to resurge wherever they can,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. He said the forces have captured 700 IS fighters since its last territorial holding fell in March. “We’ve destroyed many and war remnants and we continue to do so as we find them.”
Speaking at a remote base in Syria where the Bradleys arrived last week, he said “our primary way that we do that” is through working with the US partners, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The deployment of the mechanized force comes after US troops pulled out from northeastern Syria, making way for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters that began last month. Only several miles away from the base, fighting between Turkish-allied fighters and the SDF was ongoing, despite a cease-fire that has so far curbed the Turkish invasion but didn’t end the violence.
Smoke billowed in the distance, visible from across a major highway that has become a de-facto frontier between Turkish-held areas and areas where US troops are going to operate. An SDF official on the scene said Turkish shelling was continuing.
Further north, three car bombs went off Monday in the town of Qamishli, killing at least six people while a priest was shot dead. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack that killed the Armenian Catholic priest and his father as they drove from Qamishli to the city of Hassakeh, in a sign that the extremists still have reach.
The US withdrawal from northern Syria was widely criticized, even by allies of President Donald Trump. The Kurdish-led force, deserted by Washington in the face of the threat of a military operation by NATO ally, leaned on the Syrian government and Russia for help. The cease-fire reached in late October left Turkey in control of a stretch of land along the border that is roughly 120 kilometers (70 miles) wide and 30 kilometers (20 miles) deep. But fighting south of that zone continued. Kurdish officials say Turkey is seeking to expand its area of control.
Hill’s stress on the continued partnership with the Kurdish-led forces comes as US troops sent reinforcements to bases in the oil-rich region of eastern Syria.
Trump approved an expanded military mission which he said was to secure an expanse of oil fields across eastern Syria. The directive raised questions about how the troops will operate, particularly in an area where there are Russian-backed Syrian troops, who may try to take back oil facilities.
The decision was a partial win for those who were against the withdrawal from Syria. Pentagon officials said as many as 800 may stay in Syria, down from about 1,200 and including about 200 in a southern garrison.
Hill said while some troops are going home or withdrawing to Iraq, others are redeploying to Qamishli area, Deir Ezzor and Derik, an area where no US bases were before.
In a day visit to some of the bases where reinforcements were sent, Associated Press journalists spoke to some of the troops, many of them newly arrived. The military required that the names and exact locations of the bases not be identified.
First Lt. Jacob Moore said a group of his Bradley armored vehicles were asked to provide security for a US convoy passing through the fighting area, Tal Tamr, setting up a security blockade to allow the forces to pass.
“We were prepared for the worst,” said Moore, who arrived last week in Syria, “but we got the best. There was no fighting when we got there,” Instead, he said, locals were happy to see the new deployment.
In the crowded terrain, US officials say de-conflicting with Russia and Turkey is essential to avoid any friction.
But the reality created on the ground by US withdrawal and the Turkish invasion has made for a tense and at times, surreal terrain, where Russia, Turkish troops patrol together, while Syrian government forces clash with Turkey-backed allies despite a cease-fire brokered by Moscow, a main ally of Damascus. An earlier cease-fire negotiated between Washington and Ankara ensured that the two NATO allies don’t come into confrontation. But it left the Kurdish forces, which were in control of 30 percent of Syria’s territory, pushed away from the borders and reliant on a new political agreement that would protect a five-year experiment in self-administration.
If the US insists its mission is still fighting Daesh, for the Kurds their priority has now shifted. It is time for the alliance with the US to bear political fruit, said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, who was present at one of the bases.
He said keeping the oil in the hands of his forces was a good card for political negotiations.
“Here in northeast Syria, we are part of the total picture that is dealing with a crisis and requires finding a track for a political resolution,” Bali said. “The presence of the US forces, a military weight, will have a positive role in finding a political way out.”
Pentagon officials have stressed that securing oil facilities was a way to ensure that the Kurdish fighters maintain control of an important source of revenue.
One of the bases visited by journalists Monday was close to oil fields, but there was no way of telling if there was an increase of security around the facilities. While one base was provided with the Bradley vehicles, Apache helicopters had moved in to another, apparently from a base dismantled further north.
US officials say the enhanced presence of Apaches and artillery are a deterrent to any hostile forces in the area.
Adding to the complicated terrain in Syria, Deir Ezzor province is divided between the Kurdish-led forces on one side of the Euphrates River and the Syrian government and their Iranian-backed militias on the other. In February 2018, US forces responded firmly to an attempted advance on Kurdish-held areas by Syrian troops, at the time backed by Russian contractors.
At the base, soldiers said the troop presence also secures other infrastructure, such as water facilities and major highways.
Hill said the continued US presence is also to assist and train Kurdish-led forces, including in securing prisons where over 10,000 Daesh militants are held. The US does not guard the facilities but helps the Kurdish forces do so.
“One of the missions that we will continue to support with the Syrian Democratic Forces is to contain the prisons and make sure that all the prisoners that are under SDF control remain in those prisons and secure,” he said.