ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reiterated his demand for a safe zone in Syria exclusively under Turkish armed forces control; however, the Turkish plans, which already face growing regional opposition, threaten to be complicated by Washington’s partial reversal of a decision to militarily pull out of Syria.
In a television interview on Sunday, Erdogan outlined the need for a 30-kilometer-deep safe zone. The president said the Turkish frontier needed protection from the “terrorist” threat posed by the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG.
“It will be unacceptable for us if the safe zone would be shaped in a way that contradicts with our own strategic understanding,” he said. “If there will be a safe zone on my border, it has to be under our control.”
Ankara says the YPG is linked to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
Speaking at a campaign rally, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar declared that all military preparations had been completed and were “just waiting for an order from our president.”
Analysts say the timing of the Syrian operation was dependent on the withdrawal of around 2,000 U.S. forces from Syria. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out had been widely interpreted as a “green light” for Ankara to attack the YPG.
Trump on Friday announced that at least 200 troops would remain in Syria. Analysts say the decision could jeopardize Ankara's plan to intervene in Syria, along with threatening to reopen new tensions with the U.S., a NATO ally. U.S. forces are working closely with the YPG in the war against Islamic State, much to Ankara’s anger.
Erdogan has refrained from criticizing Trump’s latest move. On Sunday, Erdogan described as a ”positive relationship” his dealings with his U.S. counterpart and said they have agreed to meet face-to-face in April.
Ankara has been careful not to directly attack Trump, despite strained bilateral relations over a myriad of reasons, instead blaming his surrounding ministers and advisers.
Turkish pro-government media are already touting that the U.S. and Turkish presidents could yet find common ground on Syria.
“After all, the proposed safe zone creates a window of opportunity for Turkey and the U.S. to find a way out of a particularly tense episode in their relations,” wrote columnist Burhanettin Duran in the Daily Sabah. Duran also heads SETA, a Turkish research group with close ties to the government.
Ankara’s possible orientation toward Washington comes as it finds itself increasingly at odds with Tehran and Moscow.
“Turkey is definitely the top loser in Syria,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “Turkey is finding itself increasingly excluded, especially after Sochi.”
Erdogan reportedly failed to sell his “safe zone” plan to his Iranian and Russian counterparts at this month’s summit at the Russian Sochi resort. Even though Ankara is backing the Syrian rebel opposition, it has been recently working closely to end the civil war with Tehran and Moscow, the Damascus government's main backers.
With Turkish military forces already occupying a broad swath of Syria, analysts suggest Moscow and Tehran are wary of Turkey expanding its control of Syrian territory.
Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed resurrecting the 1998 Adana Agreement between Damascus and Ankara that allows Turkey to carry out cross-border operations, with Syria's permission.
“Russia could indeed back Ankara’s undertaking a cross-border operation in the region,” said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based Edam research group, “providing Ankara gets the assent of the (Damascus) regime, and that has proven to be a stumbling block,” Ulgen said.
Turkey severed diplomatic relations with Syria at the beginning of the civil war, although Erdogan acknowledged “low level” communications at an intelligence level are continuing between the countries.
However, even if Ankara restored full diplomatic relations with Syria, Damascus strongly opposes any Turkish intervention.
“Turkey has the new ambition to occupy other people’s land,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad. “I think we are facing Erdogan, who has dreams of reinvigorating and recreating the Ottoman Empire,” added Shaaban, speaking at a conference in Moscow this month.
Analysts say there are widespread concerns across the Arab world over Turkish forces' holding of Syrian territory, given Turkey’s imperial past.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is proposing a new initiative in which Russian police would secure Turkey’s Syrian border.
“We have experience in combining cease-fire agreements, safety measures and the creation of de-escalation zones with the roll out of the Russian military police,” said, Lavrov.
Ankara has not so far commented on Lavrov’s proposal. Analysis point out that Ankara is likely to be less than enthusiastic, given Moscow has close ties to the YPG and is seeking to coax the militia into a deal with Damascus.
Given Turkey’s increasingly isolated position on Syria, Ulgen said, Ankara will need to tread carefully over its safe zone plans.
“Essentially, Ankara does not want to undermine the productive political dialogue with Moscow and find itself totally isolated, given that the (Syrian) regime is against this operation, Iran is against this operation, Moscow is against this operation. If Ankara goes purely unilaterally, it will find Russia challenging its actions,” Ulgen said.