A representative for the Syrian Kurdish militia and political community in northern Syria rejected the idea of a Turkish-run “safe zone” in the region on Tuesday following U.S. troop departures, instead suggesting the United Nations should play a role.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that, during a phone conversation, American President Donald Trump suggested that Turkish troops establish a presence in northern Syria, which the Kurds call Rojava, to establish a “safe zone” where Turkish troops do not engage in military attacks on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ).
The YPG has long been one of the United States’ closest allies in Syria and played a key role in eradicating the Islamic State from Raqqa, which the terrorist group had declared its “capital.” Erdogan’s government considers the YPG indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist separatist group. The United States has designated the PKK a foreign terrorist organization but considers it independent from the YPG.
President Trump announced last month that he planned to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria. Most are in Manbij, Rojava, working with the YPG. A U.S. exit would leave the Kurds vulnerable to Turkish attack.
On Tuesday, Erdogan said he was considering a proposal from Trump for Turkish troops to establish a “safe zone” in the region, without providing specifics on what such a zone would look like and whether the YPG would be free from attack in that situation, as Erdogan has repeatedly insisted the YPG are “terrorists” who he will not negotiate with.
In his conversation with Trump on Monday, Erdogan said, “Mr. Trump once again confirmed his decision to withdraw from Syria. He also spoke about a security zone more than 30 kilometers [about 18 miles] deep inside [Syria], which would be set up by us.”
Erdogan noted that he had pitched the idea to Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, but the White House did not commit to it.
“We had suggested securing the ground if the U.S. would provide aerial protection. [Former U.S. President Barack] Obama did not take the necessary steps on it although he was in favor of it,” he said.
Aldar Khalil, who runs foreign relations for the ruling Kurdish political group in the region, said in an interview Tuesday that the Kurds would not accept such a deal. The YPG is the military wing of the political group that Khalil works with.
“If the Americans say it is true, that it is a safe zone under Turkish control, then we will undoubtedly not accept that,” he said, according to Kurdish outlet Rudaw. “If it refers to a zone providing safety from Turkish threats, then we say okay as something right is being done.”
“Sadly, Trump wants to implement these safe regions through cooperation with Turkey. But any role for Turkey will upset the balance and the region will not be safe,” Khalil reportedly stated. “On the contrary, Turkey is a party (to the dispute) and any party cannot guarantee security.”
Khalil suggested that the issue was not a safe zone, but that Turkey would be responsible for administering it. The Turkish government has spent years threatening to invade Rojava and replace the Syrian Kurds there, making them the main threat the Kurds are seeking safety from.
Instead, Khalil proposed the United Nations intervene in the region: “We can accept a safe zone in the following form – if it is a safe zone under the administration of the United Nations, the Coalition, and uninterested countries.”
He emphasized, however, that the reports on the conversation between Trump and Erdogan had left Kurdish officials with many questions, so a concrete answer on the deal was difficult to provide with the information available.
U.S. troops are currently active in Manbij, having withdrawn from another Rojava, region, Afrin, where the Turkish army moved in and the YPG withdrew with the Americans. The current controversy on the potential Turkish role in the region followed an announcement from President Trump that he would withdraw from Syria because the Islamic State had been defeated, “my only reason for being there.”
Early this month, during a visit to Israel, National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the withdrawal was not unconditional and that U.S. troops would not leave if a deal with Turkey could not guarantee the safety of the YPG. This week, Trump threatened Turkey with economic retaliation if the county indeed went through with an attack on the Kurds.
Complicating the withdrawal, the Pentagon confirmed on Wednesday that an Islamic State attack in Manbij itself resulted in the deaths of four U.S. service members. A jihadist suicide bomber attacked a patrol, including both U.S. and YPG troops, near a local restaurant.