The Syria Safe Zone and the US Policy towards the Syrian Kurds

It is possible to say that the US has never had an impressive strategy towards the Kurds, which are scattered in four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Amidst the debates around President Donald Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, which he reportedly took in a phone call with the Turkish President Erdogan, his suggestion to establish a safe zone at a depth of 20 miles (32 kilometers) in the northern regions of the country mostly along the Turkish borders created yet another dispute. Apparently not all of the parties share the same vision regarding the prospective safe zone. While President Erdoğan welcomed the accord of viewpoints between himself and his American counterpart as “an understanding of historical importance” and declared Turkey’s determination to “do its part in this regard”, Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, declared his administration’s objective as creating a secured border “for all of the parties” which evidently included the terrorist elements much opposed by Turkey.

Also, American media interpreted Trump's safe zone plan as a positive move and even a compromise to those who disagreed with the U.S. withdrawal plan from the beginning and insisted that the US must maintain its alliance with the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and protect the Syrian “Kurds” from a likely Turkish military operation. In the meanwhile, debates are going on in Turkey and there are those who suspect a U.S. intention to repeat in Syria the same pattern materialized about three decades ago in northern Iraq by creating the Kurdistan Autonomous Region under the Operation Provide Comfort, widely known as the Hammer Strength in Turkey.

It is obvious that Turkey wants to deploy its own military forces to monitor the safe zone on the spot. Further, in an attempt to relax its domestic politics, the Erdoğan government endeavors to relocate in this region parts of the over 3 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey which can at the same time increase the demographic heterogeneity in northern Syria. Yet, Turkey has no intention of displacing the Kurds from the safe zones for its sole objective is to clear out its borders from the PYD-YPG (Democratic Union Party- People's Protection Units) terrorists. In fact, the safe zone plan was first presented to the Obama Administration by President Erdogan in a visit to the U.S. in May 2013 under a three-staged plan. The plan covered a region stretching from the western part of the Euphrates, known as Jarablus, to Azaz. The area, which was designated to go down 30 kilometers from the Turkish borders, included such cities as Jarablus, al-Rai (Çobanbey), al-Bab, and Azaz. Moreover, in the same meeting Erdoğan asked Obama to declare a no-fly zone in Syria, establish safe zones for civilians, and conduct joint land operations with coalition forces. However, when the Obama administration showed an unwelcoming attitude towards the proposed plan, Turkey unilaterally started its own military operations in northern Syria.

As the debates are currently continuing around safe zone plans, the SDF announced its readiness to support the establishment of the safe zone in turn for “international guarantees” and “no foreign intervention”, which evidently refers to Turkey, in eastern and northern Syria. The safe zone will supposedly cover a 400-kilometer area along Turkey-Syria borders stretching from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border. The critical point is that the 20 miles of this area is an intersection region of the Kurdish and Arab regions. Thus, the announcement of safe zone has raised concerns that tension might increase between the Kurds and the Arabs. Additionally, Turkey does not want the safe zone to be controlled by an international coalition such as the UN or Arab forces. So, there are many problems if the plan is to be put into force. Therefore, negotiations between the U.S. and Turkey and the balance of power in the field will determine the course of events.

The Role of Kurds in the US Foreign Policy

If looked from a wider perspective, the question regarding the role of Kurds in the US Middle East policy, especially in Iraq and Syria, becomes vital. What are the limits of this role in the US foreign policy? The answers to these questions will provide critical insights into the future of US-PYD/YPG relations and the role this organization might play in Syria’s future.

The Kurds have acquired importance in the US policy at different times. With the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Kurds gained significance for the US just like the Syrian Kurds did in 2013 when they gained autonomy during the Syrian Civil War as the Assad regime suddenly withdrew from northern Syria. Moreover, during this period, the PYD, which was established in 2003 by the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers' Party) leader Abdullah Öcalan, managed to suppress its rivals as the most organized structure among the Syrian Kurds and quickly took control of the region. In this process, the US developed a tactical cooperation with this terrorist organization in the fight against ISIS. Although the organic relationship between the PKK and the PYD in the academic and political circles of the United States is generally accepted, an alliance was established on the basis of US interests and the organization's search for security and autonomy, which was launched as the “freedom fighters” of the militants in the struggle against ISIS. The PYD was never put on Foreign Terrorist Organizations List by the US and the use of the SDF cover-name was sometimes used as the main argument to justify this relationship. However, Turkey has continuously expressed that there is a direct link between the PYD and the PKK as terrorist organizations.

It is possible to say that the US has never had an impressive strategy towards the Kurds, which are scattered in four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In this axis, relations between the US and the Kurds as well as other sub-state actors in the Middle East have been shaped around short-term interests since World War II. Conversely, in the long term, the US paid more attention to its relations with the states. Examples of this are prevalent throughout the U.S. foreign policy history. Most notably, the U.S. and Iran encouraged the Iraqi Kurds to rebel in order to weaken Baghdad, which had gradually become a close ally of the Soviet Union between 1970 and 1975. However, when Baghdad accepted Iran's border demands and ultimately the Algerian Treaty (1975) was signed between Mohammad Reza Shah and Saddam Hussein, Iran and the U.S. withdrew their support from the Kurds which brought the end of the rebellion and gave way to the Kurdish massacre. A similar scenario took place after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. When the U.S. encouraged the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam in the late 1990s, the Kurds (as well as the southern Shiites) rebelled, but when the Bush administration withdrew its troops in favor of ‘one Iraq’ policy, Saddam's military forces succeeded in repressing the Kurdish rebels.

Moreover, in 2017, Massoud Barzani ignored the warnings of the U.S., which resulted in the independence referendum in the Kurdistan Regional Autonomous Administration having a similar historical experience. On one hand, the U.S. supported the Kurds in Iraq, on the other, it opposed the independence of the Kurds. In order to rebuke Massoud Barzani, the U.S. allowed Kirkuk and other disputed areas to be taken over by Hashd al-Shabi for the detriment of the Kurds and the benefit of the central government. It is likely that the U.S. authorities limited Baghdad by saying behind closed doors that the U.S. would not allow any military action against the Kurds in the Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah provinces of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government.

What we see, therefore, is that Kurds have rather been instrumental in the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East since the basic the U.S. objective in the region is to control the oil supply, preserve the balance of power in the Middle East, contain Iran, and struggle against radical “Islamic” forces and of course by at the same time ensuring Israel’s security. The US foreign policy towards the Kurds in Syria includes three elements: the position of Turkey, as a NATO member ally of the U.S., in Syria, Russia's and Iran's policy in Syria, and the radical Islamist terrorist groups. Syria Kurds have become a useful tool for the U.S. concerning all of these three elements.

As John J. Mearsheimer states, with the exception of such experiences as Iraqi invasion during the Bush Administration and Libya intervention and partly Syria policy of the Obama Administration, "offshore balancing" is the basic tendency of U.S. foreign policy rather than “onshore balancing". The offshore strategy of the U.S. is based on two pillars; “outsourcing” and “containment”. The U.S. evades direct military action against the regional challenger and instead places it on the shoulders of the countries in the region. Moreover, Iraqi Kurds and Syrian Kurds have limited the influence of Iran in Syria and Iraq. After the Arab Spring, they carried the outsourcing task to inflict Turkey with security problems due to the disagreements which occurred between this country and the U.S. following the Arab Spring. In the Middle East, the balance of power is one of the main goals of the U.S. Yet, it goes without saying that, the Kurds had two main expectation from the U.S. in turn: security and autonomy.

Although the Trump administration has drifted from the tactics of the Obama era and although there are suspicions regarding whether or not the former has a grand strategy, he clearly follows suit with his predecessors’ off-shore balancing. Moreover, he has gone full force with incorporating maximum pressure into this strategy. As many Turkish analysts point out, Trump realized that if the withdrawal plan is fully implemented, he cannot materialize his policy objectives in Syria. The control over the Syrian airspace will not be sufficient for realizing such ambitious targets as annihilating the ISIS, protecting the PYD-YPG and keeping the Russian-Iranian-Assad axis at a bay. Furthermore, U.S. officials are sentient of the fact that soldiers must be on the ground. However, it is impossible to protect the PYD-YPG with the remaining 200 soldiers. In this respect, the safe zone proposal can be read as an intermediate way with Turkey. The U.S. does not intend to abandon the PYD-YPG at this stage as it has not yet reached its final goals in Syria. The US will likely try to create new political actors with more legitimacy or to transform the PYD-YPG. The remarks of Geir O. Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, on the issue are quite telling. In response to a question about whether the Syrian Kurds would be included in the political process he declared the following:

As you all know the Syrian Kurds are already part of the process. I have already met with a representative of the Kurds, but you are, I think, referring in particular to the SDF [Self-Defence Forces] in the northeast, and it is correct that they are not part of the political process so far. I think this could turn into a challenge in the future so it is important that we address this issue in a proper way.

The answer shows that Turkey is not the only which questions the legitimacy of the PYD-YPG and the lack of consensus on the matter, especially between Turkey and the U.S., will certainly continue to haunt the search for a political solution to the crisis.

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