Home / Articles / A Pathway Forward for the U.S. and Turkey in Syria: A Virtual Safe Zone
On August 7th, after three days of military-to-military talks in Ankara, the United States and Turkey released a statement pledging to continue discussions to establish “a safe zone in northern Syria” and “that the safe zone shall become a peace corridor.” The announcement appears to have assuaged Turkey’s leadership and, for now, lessened the likelihood of a Turkish invasion, aimed at pushing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the territory held on the Turkish-Syrian border. The SDF is America’s partner force in Syria and has spearheaded offensive American-led operations against Islamic State since 2015. The group, however, is led by the Syrian Kurdish branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group active in Turkey, which the United States and the European Union have designated as a terrorist group (along with Turkey).
The statement does not indicate a U.S.-Turkish breakthrough, but instead underscores the two sides’ willingness to continue to try and reach a common understanding about the future of northeast Syria. To date, there are no indications that Ankara will compromise and recognize the SDF as a legitimate actor, a prerequisite to any comprehensive agreement with the United States, and to ensure that the fight against Islamic State is not undermined. The August 7, 2019 statement obligated the two sides to “rapidly … stand-up a joint operations center in Turkey … to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone.” The statement is fraught with uncertainty, given that the United States and Turkey remain divided over the depth of a proposed safe zone, and over which force should be operating in any future zone.
The United States has proposed a two-tiered zone, with the SDF leaving a 5-kilometer strip along the entirety of the border, and to pull back any heavy weapon 9 kilometers beyond that, for a total of 14 kilometers. This zone would be under American control, although a third party (non-Turkish) would patrol the 5 kilometer strip. In contrast, Ankara has demanded that it control a 32-kilometer-deep zone, free of the Syrian Democratic Forces, including the disbandment of any militia or Arab tribe that cooperate with the Syrian Kurds, and has claimed that only its forces can guarantee Turkish security. This impasse remains unresolved and will certainly be a point of tension in the future.
The Turkish press has also indicated that the two-sides may be discussing a more narrowly circumscribed effort, focused on Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn, two towns on the Turkish-Syrian border. The proposed agreement would, in these two places, probably resemble the Manbij Roadmap, a contested document that neither Turkey, nor the United States is satisfied with. The Roadmap includes provisions for joint patrols around the city, and for the joint vetting of SDF-linked individuals in the city’s governance bodies for links to the PKK. The Manbij Roadmap has not been fully implemented (and may never be because of how ill-defined the text is and how key concepts aren’t agreed to by either party), and has emerged as a point of divergence between the United States and Turkey. Ankara has already made clear that it will not accept a Manbij-like agreement, raising questions about how or if the U.S. or Turkey can implement the generalities listed in the August 7th statement.
Options for the Operations Room: Patrolling A Virtual Safe Zone
Faced with considerable uncertainty, it would make sense for both sides to focus on something that they can implement, and quickly. The lowest hanging fruit is the joint operations room. However, it should be understood that two sides may not even have the same idea about the intent and purpose of this effort. The United States could use the operations room to buy more time and prevent a unilateral Turkish intervention, while also signaling to Ankara that it remains committed to working through differences over the proposed safe zone. For Turkey, the proposed operations room needs to demonstrate American intent and commitment to set-up the poorly named “peace corridor” that Ankara has pledged to establish along the Turkish-Syrian border. This divergence, of course, relates to the still ill-defined safe zone concept and disagreements over the military chain of command that would control this zone and how to manage Turkish-SDF hostility.
So what now? The core problem for the United States is that it needs the SDF for its Syria strategy, while outreach to Ankara is necessary to prevent a unilateral intervention that could upset America’s Syria policy, and (more broadly) to try and repair relations with a NATO ally. A Turkish presence in the northeast runs the risk of upending the American territorial victory over the Islamic State, and could put U.S. soldiers at risk. To assuage Ankara, while keeping the SDF engaged in the ISIS fight, must grapple with how to meet Turkish expectations to have a presence in a proposed safe zone, but keep that presence small enough to appease the Syrian Kurds.
In 2017, I proposed an American approach to prevent further Turkish-SDF violence in northern Aleppo, near Manbij. In an ideal world, the United States would place conditions on a Turkish presence in areas it now de facto controls in Syria, including conditioning any movement on a peace corridor on a formal Turkish-SDF ceasefire, which would then meet a defined “condition” to then allow for Turkish patrols throughout the northeast (and not just in a small, irrelevant portion of one or two towns).
To monitor this ceasefire, perhaps the two sides could leverage the forthcoming operations room to their advantage, and split the difference on the divergent safe zone conceptions — and use the room to reach compromise over how to patrol a 32-kilometer-deep safe zone. This would require both Ankara and Washington to make a compromise over core national security issues — an unlikely outcome, but one worth pursuing if only to kick the can down the road on a Turkish invasion.
The United States could once again propose to Turkey to demilitarize 14 kilometers of SDF-held territory, and, for the SDF, “disarm and demilitarize” the airspace overhead, extending down another 18 kilometers (for a total for 32 km). This could create the conditions for the United States and Turkey to jointly patrol, from the air, the zone with unarmed manned or unmanned aircraft. The real time imagery from these aircraft could be fed to the joint operations room, with Turkish and American personnel operating together. The data could be used to jointly monitor and patrol a safe zone, per the August 7th readout, to continuously monitor SDF implementation, and to extend Turkish patrols as deep as Turkey has demanded (32 kilometers). This arrangement would entail a 5 kilometer zone, free of SDF berms and trenches. Ankara could monitor compliance from the air to satisfy its demands to patrol inside northeastern Syria, while trying to balance the SDF’s demand that Ankara have no (or a very minimally intrusive) ground presence.
The SDF would also remove heavy weaponry from locations up to 14 kilometers from the border, a pledge that would entail some level of trust because monitoring such activity (even with a heavy ground presence) is difficult. In return, Ankara would indirectly pledge not to attack SDF unless fired upon (a reiteration of the inherent right to self-defense in military conflict and what appears to be the current Turkish rules of engagement for operations in Syria), which would also serve as a de facto ceasefire between Turkey and the SDF. If Turkey accuses the SDF of violating these terms (building defenses inside the zone), the video imagery from orbiting, unarmed aircraft could be used to settle disputes. In the event a violation is discovered and proved, the U.S. would be required to remove SDF fortifications inside the 14-kilometer zone. To assuage Turkish demands about controlling a 32 kilometer zone, Ankara’s unarmed fights could be extended another 18 kilometers, for a total of 32 kilometers governed by this agreement, and deemed a safe zone/peace corridor, and controlled from the proposed operations room.
This proposal is shaky and, in all likelihood, will fail because Turkey’s most pressing problem is not addressed. Ankara, for now, remains committed to eliminating the SDF threat, not managing it through joint monitoring, and may resist any plan that does not result in a relatively large Turkish presence in the northeast. This outcome, however, is a red line for the SDF and something the United States has resisted. This points to the larger problem for Washington: the U.S. remains stuck between its partner force, the SDF, and its NATO ally, Turkey, and needs both sides to make concessions that would make each party more vulnerable and feel less safe. The option I propose is full of potential pitfalls, but at the very least, delays a Turkish invasion and make life easier for the United States as it seeks to manage its own withdrawal from Syria.
The danger is that, if and when the United States and Turkey reach an impasse over implementation, Ankara will simply use the August statement as a pressure point, and return to its policy of issuing threats and preparing for independent military action. To really solve the northeastern Syria problem set, Washington has to get more aggressive in addressing the root cause: The Turkish—PKK conflict. This approach need not entail efforts to mediate the conflict, but could simply be enacted with U.S. officials publicly pushing Ankara and the PKK to take a step towards restarting peace talks. Indeed, even this may be a step too far and could incite further Turkish anger, making bilateral relations even worse. However, faced with the reality that the United States has inadvertently (if predictably) created a PKK-allied statelet on Turkey’s border, and now has troops at risk from a Turkish invasion, it is worth thinking boldly about how to manage this crisis before the inevitable American withdrawal from Syria.