US forces in Kurdish area of northern Syria, April 2017
US officials say that they are seeking a buffer zone in northern Syria, because of or despite Donald Trump’s order to withdraw American troops.
However, the officials say no American ally has agreed yet to the proposal for a coalition of Western countries to create and potentially enforce the zone.
According to the sources, the UK, France, and Australia have been approached about the plan for Kurdish areas, which make up about 27% of Syria. The initiative seeks both to prevent a Turkish military offensive to take the territory — while assuring Ankara over Kurdish factions such as the YPG militia — and to guard against a resurgence of the Islamic State.
In mid-December, US policy was thrown into disarray when Trump suddenly decided, during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that all 2,000 US troops would be withdrawn. The forces support the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the YPG, which have pushed back the Islamic State since autumn 2015.
Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK, which has fought Ankara’s security forces for more than 30 years.
Erdoğan says Turkey will establish a 32-km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border in Kurdish territory. He met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week to obtain Moscow’s support.
The US proposal appears to mimic Erdoğan’s, setting out a 20-mile deep zone, east of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border. Iraq-based American assets to maintain the zone would include a quick reaction force, drones, and other technology for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Meanwhile, US officials are trying to delay implementation of the Trump order. They are now setting a timetable of four to six months for any withdrawal.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Brussels last week for discussions. Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan — who took over after Jim Mattis resigned over Trump’s order — said Tuesday:
There are very important conversations going on in major capitals of Europe about support to that part of Syria as well as some very important discussions with our [Syrian Democratic Forces] counterparts there in northeastern Syria.
A European diplomat confirmed talks with the US about a buffer zone but said nothing has been agreed.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host foreign ministers from coalition countries next week. A senior Syrian Kurdish official, Ilhan Ahmed, is in Washington urging the Administration to delay any withdrawal.
Ahmed, who represents the political arm of the SDF, said she supported the US idea but rejected any Turkish initiative.
She also confirmed Kurdish groups have been discussing a fallback plan with the Assad regime. The SDF would become part of the regime’s army in return for a regime commitment to Kurdish autonomy.
Up to now, the regime has rejected a federal Syria in which the Kurds control their areas. But in late December Ahmed travelled to Russia, the essential ally of the regime, to discuss the idea with Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.
On Monday night, Trump approached Ahmed at a fundraising event at his Trump Hotel in Washington. He said he loved the Kurds and would help establish a safe zone to help protect them. But he also said he loved the Turks.