Arab News February 7, 2017. Understanding the US plan to establish security zones in Syria

US President Donald Trump announced that he “would absolutely do safe zones in Syria.” The project still seems vague, but it has to be taken seriously since it came from the president of a superpower. Trump phoned Saudi King Salman and received his support for the project. It cannot be implemented without Saudi financial support, but another source of finance could be the EU.
Many Syrians would prefer to stay in a safe zone in their own country than face the risks of fleeing to Europe. EU countries would thus avoid the social and economic problems caused by Syrian refugees, so the bloc may be persuaded to make a significant financial contribution to such a project if a satisfactory framework can be worked out. However, the difficulties are not only financial but also political.
Turkey has favored establishing such a zone since the early stages of the Syrian crisis. It wanted to kill three birds with one stone by translating this idea into action: To clear the region of Daesh fighters; to prevent Kurds from linking three cantons they had established in northern Syria; and to relocate to this zone 3 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
The zone was going to cover an area 92 km long and 30-40 km deep in Syrian territory between Jarablus and Mari. Operation Euphrates Shield was launched by Turkey for this purpose. The US and many other members of the international community were also in favor of safe zones, but their perception was not identical to Turkey’s. Washington disagreed with Ankara on the purpose of such zones, apparently so as not to harm the Kurdish cause.
Establishing security zones will be a big achievement for the Trump administration and a sign of very concrete progress in the Syrian crisis, but it is too early to be hopeful.
Yasar Yakis
The strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its military branch the People’s Protection Units (YPG), wish to link the Kobani and Afrin cantons and create an uninterrupted belt in northern Syria that will go all the way from the Syrian-Iraqi border to the western end of Turkey’s border with Syria.
The US recently started providing armored vehicles to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia composed of fighters from various ethnic groups but dominated by Kurds. Turkey is extremely disturbed by this, because military equipment made available to the Kurds finds its way to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is engaged in a fierce battle with Turkish security forces. Ankara is waiting anxiously to see how the Trump administration will handle this issue.
Russia used to promote Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. However, after the Astana meeting of Jan. 24, it announced a set of ideas for Syria’s future constitution, proposing a federal structure for the state and removal of the word “Arab” from the name of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Turkey held back, because any step that promotes Kurdish autonomy in Syria is an extremely sensitive subject for Turks. Russia and the US may endorse this set of ideas, because they are both federal states and believe in the merit of federalism.
The Kurds are pushing the US and Russia to compete for more substantive support for their cause. Both countries may agree to cooperate on this issue. The provision, for the first time, of armored vehicles to the SDF may be a sign of a US effort to counterbalance the increasing support extended by Russia to promote the Kurdish cause.
Iran is the staunchest supporter of Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, so establishing a security zone may not appeal to it. Russia may be inclined to check Iranian influence in Syria to promote its own influence. However, Moscow has several overlapping interests with Tehran, so there are limits to what Russia will be prepared to do to curb Iran’s role.
If one or more security zones are established in Syria despite all these intricacies, it will be a big achievement for the Trump administration and a sign of very concrete progress in the Syrian crisis, but it is too early to be hopeful.

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