In late July, Turkey promised a major military operation east of the Euphrates. The area would be returned to its "true owners," as Turkey's leaders have claimed for several years. The "cancer" of a "terrorist corridor" would be replaced by a "peace corridor." Ankara told the Russians and the Americans that its soldiers were coming into Syria.
Then nothing happened. The US scrambled and sent a delegation to Turkey, including diplomats, the anti-ISIS envoy James Jeffrey and military discussants. While the US secretary of defense warned Turkey against a unilateral offensive in early August, Washington and Ankara tried to hammer out a compromise.
Ankara has a way with words. "If the safe zone is not established and threats toward our country continue, we will launch the operation in the east of the Euphrates," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on July 22.
"We are determined to shatter the terror corridor east of the Euphrates, no matter how the negotiations with the US to establish a safe zone along the Syrian borders concludes," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on July 27. The foreign minister went on to say, on August 12 during Eid al-Adha celebrations, that "Turkey won't allow the US to stall the process for the operation east of the Euphrates." So they're doing it with or without the US. Yet, at the same time, six Americans came to discuss the "coordination center" with Turkey in Ankara at the Defense Ministry.
So which is it: Will Turkey launch an operation anyway, whether or not the Americans do what they are told in Ankara? The US Embassy in Turkey says that as soon as possible, the "rapid implementation" of the safe zone idea will take place. That means administering an area the size of Connecticut that stretches some 400 km. along the border and is 15-30 km. deep. But how hard can that be?
US policy doesn't usually do anything "rapidly." America was supposed to "withdraw" from Syria in December 2018, and then it decided to stay – sort of – while partially withdrawing, according to an August 6 report released at the Pentagon. So the US withdraws and doesn't withdraw. It talks about safe zones and peace corridors, and Turkey says it will definitely launch an operation.
Turkey has vowed to destroy the mostly Kurdish groups partnered with the US in eastern Syria.
Turkey has vowed to destroy the mostly Kurdish groups partnered with the US in eastern Syria. This includes the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). It also involves the rest of the alphabet soup of groups that are all linked in eastern Syria, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of security forces, and the political echelons of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Syrian Democratic Council. For Ankara it is all the same – and they must be removed from the border. Ankara says these groups have put their trust in "foreign forces" and that they "will tomorrow find themselves in the grave."
This is the same language Turkish leaders used in December 2015 when they said that the PKK in Turkey "will be buried in trenches they have dug." This was during battles against the party inside Turkey's borders. "We are always blowing terrorists' brains out. We are burying them in the trenched that they dug and will continue to do so," Erdogan said in December 2018 at a political rally, according to Hurriyet News in Turkey. The rhetoric is largely unchanged, as Turkey has insisted that it will return eastern Syria to its "true owners" as it did in an operation in the mostly Kurdish area of Afrin in January 2018.
Generally, the US shrugs off the rhetoric, dismissing it as mere nationalism or electioneering. Even though the statements don't change and Ankara tends to say the same thing year after year, there is a belief that all things can be papered over through some agreements that push the crisis a few months into the future. "Kick the can down the road" is the actual policy. It is related to other simmering crises with Turkey, such as the S-400 deal, where Turkey bought Russian air defense systems, as well as the US trying to push Ankara out of the F-35 program.
Pentagon now says that military-to-military talks in Ankara "reach an initial understanding on a security mechanism along the Syrian border with Turkey that addresses the Turkish security concerns, maintains security in northeast Syria so ISIS cannot reemerge." This comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on August 9 that talks between the US and Turkey had led to progress in establishing a "sustainable security mechanism." Establishing a safe zone would be a big step toward achieving peace and security.
But the US is cagey on how and what it is doing. America doesn't inform its partners among the SDF or other groups in eastern Syria what its plans are. It prefers to shroud this in a mystery, which is what has happened since the fall of 2018. It was then that Washington suddenly put a bounty on three PKK leaders, while National Security Adviser John Bolton said the US would not be leaving Syria until Iran leaves. When America appeared to be leaving in December, the SDC scrambled to see if it could come to an agreement with Damascus to prevent a Turkish offensive. Either way, it is unclear how a "safe zone" materializes. Given Turkey's rhetoric of promising a military offensive into Syria, it's unclear how the next six months or year will continued without a new crisis.
Will Ankara's boots be on the ground – and if so, where? How will the SDF accept that, while the US encourages them to keep fighting ISIS, as parts of northern Syria that they fought and died to liberate in 2015 are handed over to a safe zone? There is a lack of clarity and transparency, which has resulted in crises in the past. But the current leadership in Washington tends to thrive on crisis a bit, almost as if it has become a doctrine. Is it a doctrine or, in the absence of a long-term strategy, do actors of the US government – such as the Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Adviser and others – simply implement their own policies and hope for the best?
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.