Tensions Overshadow US-Turkey Talks on Syria Safe Zone
With ties to Washington already strained due to purchase of Russian weapons, Ankara threatens unilateral military moves to clear border area of Kurdish fighters
Turkey is gearing up for a new round of negotiations with the United States this week over a safe zone in Syria, and analysts tell The Media Line that Ankara’s fresh threats of a unilateral military incursion could add to what generally are deteriorating relations between the NATO allies.
As Turkey sees it, the safe zone is intended to clear a border area inside Syria of the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been allied with the US in its fight against Islamic State. The Pentagon has stated that a unilateral military incursion into northeastern Syria, especially where US personnel might be, was unacceptable.
Yet Turkey says it will not continue the talks forever.
“If we understand that our expectations are not met, we will take the necessary steps in the safe zone,” Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hami Aksoy said at a press conference on Friday.
Mensur Akgun, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Kultur University and director of the Global Political Trends Center think tank, called it legitimate for Turkey to express fears over the YPG near its border.
“For any country… this would be a serious security concern,” he told The Media Line.
Akgun believes that Ankara is willing to go into Syria on its own if it cannot come to an agreement with the US, but that it prefers to avoid that option.
“It’s not the priority – they don’t want to do it alone,” he said. “They want to do it with the United States.”
He added that Washington should attach greater importance to the matter of the YPG in considering its relationship with its NATO ally. Turkey says the group is connected to the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and, like the US and EU, has classified it as a terrorist group.
“The US should not sacrifice its alliance [with Turkey] for the sake of a terrorist organization,” Akgun said.
Turkey’s ramping up pressure for a safe zone comes amid fraught relations with the US over Ankara’s purchase of Russian weapons. The procurement, involving the S-400 air-defense missile system, led the Trump Administration to suspended Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program over concerns that the aircraft’s secret stealth capabilities might be compromised by Russian technicians and experts sent with the S-400s, whose delivery commenced in July.
Ankara also faces possible sanctions due to the arms deal. This could pose a major blow to its economy, which entered a recession at the end of year and saw a significant rise in inflation and unemployment. It was the country’s struggling economy that loomed large over the loss by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party in the recent mayoral elections in Ankara and Istanbul – his greatest political defeat since coming to power.
Erdogan had hoped that US President Donald Trump would be able to delay or waive the sanctions.
“I think it’s all part of the big, broader negotiation about how to handle [the] bilateral relationship in the aftermath of the S-400 saga,” Merve Tahiroglu, a research analyst focusing on Turkey and Kurdish issues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Media Line. “There is a sort of opportunism here as well.”
Tahiroglu added, however, that Turkey had been in talks with the US over a safe zone for months, with major differences remaining on how it should be implemented, including its size and the forces that would be involved in patrolling it.
Nicholas Danforth, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Turkey, stated that the fallout over the Russian weapons will loom large over the negotiations.
“If Turkey is hoping [to avoid] sanctions over the S-400s, it would be reckless to go ahead with an operation in Syria before that’s decided,” he told The Media Line.
Danforth added that Turkey had clearly stated its concerns over securing its border, its top priority being to prevent an autonomous Kurdish state and maintain a safe zone large enough to encompass the major Kurdish cities near the border, “thereby leaving a potential Kurdish state stillborn.”
He warned that the YPG remained an independent actor that might not go along with a US-Turkey safe-zone deal and instead switch sides and come to an agreement with Moscow or Damascus.
This, however, does not mean Washington can ignore Ankara’s statements.
“Turkey,” he explained, “has been vocal enough in its threats and [has] followed through with them enough in the past that even if… it’s bluffing, Washington has no choice but to be worried.”