US-Turkey ‘safe zone’ augurs fracturing of Syria into foreign areas of influence

Despite lingering disagreements, the move demonstrates how foreign powers are establishing separate zones in Syria while the Damascus government cannot do much.

ISTANBUL — The debate between Turkey and the United States about setting up a “security zone” in north-eastern Syria is the latest example of foreign and regional power politics deepening divisions in the war-torn country.

Ankara and Washington have begun preparations to set up a joint operations centre to manage a “security zone” along Syria’s north-eastern border with Turkey.

Even though the two NATO partners have been unable to agree on the size of the zone and on who would patrol the area, the move demonstrates how foreign powers are establishing separate zones of influence and pursuing their own goals in Syria while the Damascus government cannot do more than register its protest.

Turkey wants the “security zone” to make sure that Syrian-Kurdish fighters do not use the border region to stir up trouble in Turkey itself. The United States, which has about 2,000 soldiers deployed in eastern Syria, wants to protect its Kurdish partners from the Turkish armed forces. Despite Turkey’s warnings, Kurds want to keep the regional autonomy they have built since Syrian forces withdrew from their area years ago to fight elsewhere in the country.

Some observers said the development could lead to grave consequences.

“Syria is unlikely to be unified for a long time,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Turkey has territorial ambitions in Syria. Many influential groups in US foreign policy circles are also saying that the US should remain in north Syria for the long haul, which is not promising,” Landis said via e-mail.

Turkey denies that it has territorial aspirations in Syria. Ankara argues that plans for a “security zone” in north-eastern Syria were triggered by the same reason that led to military interventions by Turkey west of the Euphrates River in 2016 and 2018: Turkey says its national security is threatened by the Kurds’ region of self-rule, described as a “terror corridor” by Turkish politicians. Critics, pointing to the extension of Turkish power lines and postal services into the Syrian city of Jarabulus, say that Ankara is likely to be in Syria for the long haul.

Under an agreement with Russia, Turkey has deployed a small number of soldiers in 12 observation posts around the Idlib province in north-western Syria to monitor a ceasefire in the area. Iranian and pro-Iranian forces are also active in Syria.

The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has vowed to win back every part of the country, which would include the region of Kurdish self-rule and areas occupied by Turkish troops, but has been unable to act upon its goal, Landis said.

“The Syrian military is weak and exhausted. It is also very dependent on Russia, which means that Assad’s ambitions to get back territory in both Aleppo and Idlib provinces are linked to Turco-Russian relations,” he said.

Moscow’s intervention in Syria’s war in 2015 saved Assad’s forces from defeat and has helped the government regain control in several parts of the country.

Syrian government forces and Russian warplanes have been gaining ground in Idlib but have not driven out rebel forces from the province. Turkey wants to prevent an all-out offensive in Idlib because it is concerned about a possible new inflow of refugees.

Winning back Kurdish-ruled regions in eastern Syria will be another challenge for Assad’s forces.

“The longer Damascus is excluded from certain areas of the country, the more facts are being created on the ground,” said Heiko Wimmen, project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group. “Damascus has a lot of work to do in that respect, it could take a long time.”

However, it was far from certain that this development would lead to Syria being fractured as a state, Wimmen added by telephone. He pointed to the emergence of de facto zones of influence along the river Euphrates, with the Russian Air Force becoming dominant west of the river while the United States rules the skies east of it. This could end up making the Euphrates a dividing line inside Syria but that did not mean that the country would break apart along that line, Wimmen said.

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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