This article was published in Arab News on August 17, 2019.
Six key obstacles to the US-Turkey deal on Syria
Turkish and American military teams who were negotiating for months have agreed on the broad lines of their cooperation in northeast Syria, but uncertainties persist.
A joint command center will be created in Turkey and a “peace corridor” will be set up in Syria. The agreement fell short of Turkey’s expectations, which were for a 30km-40 km wide and 470km long corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border to be controlled exclusively by the Turkish army. Instead, the agreement refers to a “peace corridor” whose main aim will be to help displaced Syrians to return home.
The most important effect of this agreement is that a further Turkish military incursion into Syria seems to have been averted, at least for the moment.
The US Embassy in Ankara leaked a document to the Turkish media giving further details of how the US perceives the “corridor.” According to this document, the US proposes a much narrower corridor of 5km. It will be patrolled jointly by Turkish and American soldiers. Another 9km-wide corridor, deeper into Syria, will be patrolled solely by US soldiers. The US keeps another 4km wide corridor for bargaining purposes and for further extension in Arab-majority towns such as Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain. According to this American proposal, the Kurdish majority towns will continue to be administered by local military councils and observation posts will be created under the supervision of the international coalition.
At first glance, these contradicting ideas give the impression of confusion, but it would be safer to characterize them as “constructive ambiguity” to be eliminated later. The Pentagon seems inclined to spread the process over time and avoid the collapse of the talks.
Even if an agreement is reached on these broad lines, there is a catalogue of other issues to be clarified.
One of them is that Turkey wants the US to expel Kurdish PYD fighters from this corridor. Estimates of their number vary, but an International Crisis Groupreport last week said there were 60,000 fighters on the payroll of the Kurdish autonomous administrations. We may assume that the backbone of this huge military contingent is mainly composed of the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). It is not realistic to expel such a big group of fighters from the places they are entrenched in.
A joint command center will be created in Turkey and a “peace corridor” will be set up in Syria. The agreement fell short of Turkey’s expectations, which were for a 30km-40 km wide and 470km long corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border to be controlled exclusively by the Turkish army.
Second is the mechanics of the expulsion. The US will probably drag its feet, so as not to expel them. In the absence of US support, how will Turkey identify these 60,000 fighters in predominantly Kurdish-populated towns, if it does not have a full list of their identities, with photos?
Third, Turkey is asking the US authorities to dismantle military infrastructure built in Syria with US financial support, which would be ridiculous.
Fourth, pushing the YPG away from the Turkish border will not diminish its capacity to harass the Turkish army. On the contrary, the Turkish army will become more vulnerable in Syrian territory, in a hostile environment.
Fifth is the length of the corridor. Turkey wishes to extend the corridor all along the Turkey-Syria border up to the Iraqi border, which would make it about 430km in length. The pro-Kurdish Mesopotamia News Agency claimed an agreement has been reached in Ankara to keep this corridor only 100km long.
Sixth, the two sides agreed that the peace corridor would be used to facilitate the return of the displaced Syrians. This looks to be more easily said than done. Only a small portion of the displaced Syrians must have come from this region. If Syrians from other parts of the country are going to be settled in this “corridor,” the indigenous people of the region will probably object, especially if the move is likely to alter the ethnic composition of the region’s population. It will not be easy to persuade the international community of the wisdom of such a move.
The close cooperation of the Syrian government will be needed both to determine the city of origin of the displaced Syrians to be settled in this corridor, and the ownership of the property where they are going to be settled. Otherwise this will open a new Pandora’s Box and reignite a new internecine war.
As if these were not enough, Russia says Syria’s consent has to be obtained to set up such a corridor. Many obstacles therefore have to be overcome before we see this agreement implemented.