The US is still trying to thread the needle between its alliance with Turkey and its partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria.
The hope is that a border force or "safe zone" can reduce tensions after the defeat of Islamic State.
Since the US announced its withdrawal from Syria in December last year and then reversed that decision, Washington and Ankara have been discussing what comes next in eastern Syria, where the US has been working with Kurdish and Arab fighters to defeat ISIS.
Jared Szuba, of The Defense Post news site, spoke to Aldar Xelil, a diplomatic relations official from the Movement for a Democratic Society. Xelil's views reflect the larger thinking of the SDF and Kurdish forces in eastern Syria. The US-led coalition and the SDF declared the defeat of ISIS in its last "caliphate" foothold in the Euphrates Valley in late March. The defeat came three months after US President Donald Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from Syria, which cast a huge question mark over what comes next in the region.
With the support of the US and the coalition, the SDF liberated a huge swath of Syria from ISIS. But this has also increased tensions with Turkey. Ankara has accused the US of working closely with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, which it says is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). From Ankara's perspective, this means the PKK has come to control areas of eastern Syria while fighting ISIS with US support.
Turkey has been fighting the PKK since a 2015 ceasefire broke down. It launched operations in Syria in the fall of 2016, and then again in January 2018. In the latter case, it took over the area of Afrin along with Syrian rebel groups, promising that hundreds of thousands of mostly Syrian Arab refugees would return. Kurds fled, and the YPG was defeated in Afrin. Turkey has vowed to launch an operation in eastern Syria to remove the YPG, and Ankara says it will return Kurdish areas to their "true owners."
From the Kurdish perspective, eastern Syria is a recipe for disaster, as all their gains fighting ISIS will be lost and the relative stability they have brought since 2015 will be scuppered. The US is also concerned. In a recent New Yorker article, Robin Wright sketched out how the US is seen as having "betrayed" its allies in eastern Syria. SDF commander Mazloum Kobani asked, "How could a great country behave like that and abandon its allies in the middle of the fight?"
This is the strange situation Washington finds itself in today. Turkey has vowed numerous times to "clear" eastern Syria and the city of Manbij of "terrorists," by which it means the YPG. "Who will provide our security here, Russia or Iran?" the Turkish president asked in early March. "We will achieve that."
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Turkey about any unilateral actions in Syria, warning of "devastating consequences," according to a report by Kurdistan24.
Xelil indicated that the SDF will soon meet with US envoy James Jeffrey in order to "understand the matter better."
Jeffrey indicated in a press briefing in late March, after the ISIS defeat, that the US was still working with Turkey to establish a "safe zone" along the border, which would exclude the YPG. But the details of the safe zone, under discussion since January, are a mystery to everyone involved. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told CBS that US policy was unclear on April 3. Furthermore, the comments by Xelil also indicate the SDF doesn't know who will make up the force.
The US has been unclear about the number of troops it wants to keep in eastern Syria. Estimates range from as few as 200 to more than 1,000. The US also told Western powers in February that it wanted contributions to a "peacekeeping force" that would form part of the force along the Turkish border which would help allay Ankara's concerns. But how will the US actually get the YPG or SDF to withdraw and fill in the area with some new border force? The US is still helping to train security forces in eastern Syria, and Washington attempts to make sure these forces include Arabs and Kurds. There was also talk of using Kurdish forces linked to other Kurdish political parties. But after months of looking into these plans, it appears none of them have born fruit.
Turkey wants the YPG removed from eastern Syria, especially from the border area where most Kurds live. It would like to replicate its Afrin operation, removing the YPG and using Syrian rebel groups, which are mostly Arab, to control the border. Then, Syrian refugees who are mostly not from eastern Syria would move in, fueling fears of demographic change similar to what took place in Afrin.
The Syrian regime doesn't want that, but it does want the YPG weakened, and wants the SDF to beg the Syrian regime to take control of the border. Russia supports the Syrian regime's view. Iran wants the US weakened and would also like to see any US-backed forces, such as the SDF, weakened. This means that Turkey, Iran and Russia are all aligned in some form on eastern Syria, either in weakening the US or weakening the SDF.
How the US intends to confront that while also trying to create a border buffer that is amenable to Ankara remains to be seen. With Turkey not struggling with election recounts, Washington may have a few weeks breathing space. But given its lack of clarity in messaging, no one seems to know what the US is actually doing, or how it can wave a magic wand to conjure up a border force that pleases everyone.
With ISIS still a threat, sleeper cells emerging, and tens of thousands of ISIS members in detention camps, eastern Syria remains a complex puzzle. One false move could make the pieces overlap and lead to a new conflict.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.