Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks at a rally in Erzerum, January 25, 2019
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has declared that Turkey will establish a “safe zone” in Kurdish areas of northern Syria “within months”, even if other powers do not agree.
Donald Trump’s order for the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria has been the catalyst for Ankara to seek the expansion of its area of influence along the Turkish-Syrian border. Erdoğan says the zone will be 32 km (20 miles) deep, both west and east of the Euphrates River.
Turkey considers the Kurdish militia YPG — which the US has backed as the leading element in the Syrian Democratic Forces, created in autumn 2015 to push out the Islamic State — to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK. In early 2018, Ankara’s forces and Syrian rebels took almost all of the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria.
The Kurds still control about 27% of Syria in their cantons of Kobani and Cezire in the north and northeast.
Erdoğan told members of his AKP ruling party on Friday that the zone will be “aimed at protecting our country from terrorists, not protecting terrorists right beside our border”.
He continued, “We will definitely form this safe or buffer zone ourselves. Our only expectation from our allies is that they provide logistical support to Turkey’s effort.”
US officials, pushing back against Trump’s withdrawal order, have complicated the Turkish effort. Earlier this month Erdoğan refused to meet US National Security Advisor John Bolton after he warned Ankara not to attack Kurdish territory.
On Wednesday the Turkish President met Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow. There was no explicit statement about the safe zone, although Putin implied Russian support by speaking of a 1998 accord in which he was involved as head of Russia’s FSB security service.
Erdoğan said yesterday that neither a US-led coalition nor the UN can create the safe zone: “The only power that can in a true sense establish the safety and functioning of this region on our Syrian border is Turkey. We are closed to all proposed solutions besides this.”
The US envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, met Turkish Defence Minister Gen. Hulusi Akar and the head of armed forces Gen. Yasar Guler on Friday.
A Turkish statement said Akar expressed Ankara’s expectation that the US will end its support for the YPG and ensure the withdrawal of the Kurdish militia from the city of Manbij in eastern Aleppo Province, west of the Euphrates River.
The Syrian Democratic Forces took the mainly-Arab city in August 2016. Since last summer, the US and Turkey have had an uneasy agreement to oversee the area, but Erdoğan has denounced the Americans for not completing the YPG’s departure.