Turkey’s troops and US counterparts have begun patrols in a “safe zone” across two Kurdish cantons in northeast Syria.
After months of often tense negotiation and verbal jabs, the joint patrols began on Sunday along the 450-km (250-mile) long zone across the Kobani and Cezire cantons, including from the Euphrates River east to the Iraqi border. Turkish- and US-flagged vehicles established a convoy about 30 km (19 miles) east of the Turkish border town of Akcakale, near Syria’s Tel Abyad. They then headed south for several hours, With two military helicopters overhead at one point.
“To establish a safe zone east of the Euphrates in northern Syria, Turkish Armed Forces and US personnel conducted the first joint ground patrol as planned,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said. A Turkish journalist posted video:
TSK ile Suriye'de ortak devriye gerçekleştiren ABD askerleri, daha sonrasında Rasulayn'da terör örgütü YPG/PKK ile ortak bir devriye gerçekleştirmiş. pic.twitter.com/ZffxMFmuZF
— Yaser Emre (@yasiremres) September 8, 2019
A witness said Turkish officers in the convoy documented some YPG fortifications that have been demolished. Kurdish officials have said the militia has withdrawn from a strip a few kilometers deep.
The depth of the zone is still unclear despite the Turkish-US announcement of a joint operations room. Ankara has been calling for an area at least 30 km (19 miles) deep, but the Americans had been proposing a belt of territory only 15 km in depth.
The US Combined Joint Task Force said the patrol “demonstrates our continued commitment to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns, while also allowing the coalition and our SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] partners to remain focused on achieving the enduring defeat” of the Islamic State.
Erdoğan Continues Criticism of US
Soon after the patrol returned to Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan resumed his pressure on the US: “We are negotiating with the US for the safe zone, but we see at every step that what we want and what they have in mind is not the same thing.”
Referring to the Kurdish militia YPG, he chided, “It seems that our ally is looking for a safe zone for the terrorist organization, not for us. We reject such understanding.”
Turkey considers the YPG to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK, which has fought Turkish Kurdish security forces for more than 30 years. However, the YPG is the leading faction in the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, created in autumn 2015 to remove the Islamic State from northeast Syria, a task accomplished this past spring.
Erdoğan and Turkish officials are also calling for the resettlement of one million Syrian refugees, currently among the 3.6 million in Turkey, in the northeast. Many areas of the “safe zone” have a mainly-Kurdish population, although towns and villages along the border such as Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain had been largely populated by Arabs before the 2011 Syrian uprising.
Arab tribal leaders have accused the YPG of preventing residents from returning to their homes. Kurdish officials deny the claim, and say they have been victims of Arab discrimination.
Turkey closed its border to further refugee entry in 2016. In recent weeks, authorities have deported busloads of Syrian men, claiming that they do not have proper identification papers.
Erdoğan warned on Sunday, in a speech in eastern Turkey:
If the safe zone in the east of Euphrates with our own soldiers will not be established by the end of September, we will have no choice but to go its own way.
This is not something to be completed by three or five helicopter flights, five or ten vehicle patrols, the presence of a couple of soldiers in the region only for show. We must bring the whole region with its cities and rural areas to a safe status to settle one million people there.