President Trump’s vision of “safe zones” for refugees fleeing the brutal violence of Syria’s civil war is running into opposition from a key ally, Turkey, which is warning that the U.S.-protected areas will become havens for Kurdish militant movements that have long battled Ankara. The dispute widens deep-seated resentments between two key allies that the U.S. is relying on in the final battle to defeat the Islamic State in Syria.
The Turks warn that Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime adversary, is poised to exploit the zones as a way to increase political and military tensions inside Turkey.
Mr. Trump and his top aides have talked repeatedly about the safe zones idea, both as a humanitarian measure and as a way to prevent Syrians from seeking refuge in Europe and the U.S. As recently as his Florida campaign rally over the weekend, Mr. Trump talked up the idea and said he would get the oil-rich Persian Gulf states to pay for them.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, also promoted the idea of safe zones. President Obama consistently rejected them, fearing they would draw the U.S. military deeper into Syria’s civil war, that they might spark accidental military confrontations and that players in the conflict could use them for their own purposes. That, Turkish officials told The Washington Times, is just what may soon happen.
Pulling from the playbook of his late father, Hafez Assad, who backed Syrian Kurdish militants against Turkey during the 1990s, Mr. Assad has signaled that he intends to use the Kurdish-controlled areas as incubators for a wave of resistance — all while U.S. and coalition air power provide cover.
The situation is increasing unease in Ankara, according to a senior Turkish diplomatic source, who said the Assad regime and the Kurds may appear to be at odds with each other, while actually coordinating against the common enemy of Turkey.
“We don’t know if [Mr. Assad] will use the PYD or the YPG against Turkey,” said the source, using the acronyms for the People’s Protection Units and the Democratic Union Party — two of the main Kurdish militant groups operating in northern Syria along the Turkish border. “But Assad has used all means to stay in power and distract from his problems in Syria. Any distraction will be of use to him, and he won’t refrain from using it.”
While the Obama administration relied on Kurdish groups such as the PYD and YPG to carry the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, Turkey sees them as terrorist organizations aligned with an on-again, off-again insurgency that Kurdish militants have been waging against the Turkish state for decades.
Whether or not Mr. Trump will ramp up American support for the Kurdish groups — perhaps even putting them in charge of safe zones — remains to be seen. U.S. officials say proposals are likely to be included in the comprehensive review of the war against the Islamic State that Mr. Trump has ordered the Pentagon to deliver by next week.
The stakes are particularly high for Ankara, said Aykan Erdemir, a former opposition member of Turkish parliament. He said Turkish leaders are particularly wary about the extent to which the Assad regime and its allies, including Iran and Russia, may seek to use the Kurds to undermine Turkish influence in Syria.
“Overall, what Turkey is thinking is that if there is a contiguous Kurdish entity inside Syria, not only Assad, but others could exploit it,” said Mr. Erdemir, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington.
From Ankara’s view, the “worst-case scenario is a contiguous Kurdish zone that connects the Kurds’ western and eastern cantons — the term Kurdish groups call their own entities — in Syria,” he said.
Mr. Assad has publicly downplayed the U.S. threat to establish the safe zones inside his country. “It’s not a realistic idea at all,” he said in a recent interview with Yahoo News. But analysts say the Syrian president is likely happy to watch the debate simmer, as it unnerves Turkey while providing him leverage in eventual talks between Damascus and Syrian Kurdish leaders.
Mr. Erdemir told The Times that there may already be “some choreography between the Assad regime and Syrian Kurds.”
On the campaign trail last year and now as president, Mr. Trump has been a consistent champion of the safe zone concept. The Trump administration circulated a draft executive order last month that opens the way for the Pentagon and State Department to develop several of the zones in Syria.
Mr. Trump has not signed the order, which drew swift behind-the-scenes scrutiny from Turkey.
“Our view is that the Trump administration is still reviewing that and what to do there. I don’t know if they have a really full set policy on this yet. They are reviewing all the options,” said the senior Turkish diplomat who spoke with The Times. “What we are saying, in principle, is we are not against a safe zone, but we have to know what are the modalities of how to implement it.”
One of biggest uncertainties centers on the role of Russia, which has provided critical military support to the Assad regime in the civil war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow is ready to talk with the U.S. about safe zones but believes it needs to be coordinated with the Syrian government.
At the White House, meanwhile, Trump administration spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters that the creation of some form of “safe havens” remains an idea “at the top of the president’s foreign policy agenda.”
Syrian military forces loyal to Mr. Assad have taken on a larger role against the Islamic State, complicating the already confusing constellation of U.S., Turkish, Russian and Iranian-backed forces fighting to oust the terrorist group, also known as ISIS, from Syria.
Turkish troops have pushed into northern Syria to retake Islamic State-held territory along the Syria-Turkey border and appear to be on a collision course with Syrian forces in the area.
At the same time, Ankara has slammed Washington’s backing of a delicate coalition of moderate Sunni Muslim Arab rebels and Kurdish paramilitaries known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, against the Islamic State, a Salafist Sunni group.
While U.S. officials say they remain engaged with Ankara over a potential role for Turkey in an eventual assault on the Islamic State headquarters city of Raqqa, Turkish troops appear to be on a collision course with the Syrian military forces also active in the area — and a clash between them could be disastrous.
Friction has mounted most recently around the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, a major Islamic State thoroughfare connecting Raqqa to critical supply routes around the country.
With Turkish troops operating nearby, Syrian forces have captured high ground above supply lines between al-Bab and Raqqa. The Assad regime’s ultimate goal will be to drive out the Turkish troops once the Islamic State is defeated, analysts say.
The question, said Joshua Landis, a longtime Syria observer who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is whether the Assad government will truly work with Kurdish forces in the area to achieve that goal.
“The Kurds and the Assad government don’t like each other, but they both don’t like the Turks or the Sunni rebels more than they don’t like each other,” Mr. Landis said. “So they have a tacit understanding amongst themselves that they’re going to screw Turkey and the rebels.
“They know there’s going to be an arm-wrestling match between Damascus and Kurdistan,” he said. “But that’s a match they’ve both put off to another day because they have a mutual and more immediate goal to scuttle Turkish and Syrian rebel ambitions in the region.
“Turkey is the one power that could retain ownership of a bunch of Syrian land north of Aleppo and could sponsor a Sunni rebel enclave,” Mr. Landis said. Mr. Assad, he added, “does not want that to happen.”
If Mr. Assad is able to expand on battlefield successes and leverage U.S.-backed safe zones as a bulwark against Turkey, then it could put him in a position as Syria’s unquestioned leader — an outcome U.S. officials deemed unthinkable just a few years ago.