Damascus rejects Turkey-US plan, Kurds give guarded welcome

DAMASCUS: Damascus said Thursday it strongly rejects a proposed US-Turkish buffer zone for northern Syria, blaming the “aggressive” project on Syria’s Kurds, who gave the proposal a guarded welcome.

Turkish and US officials agreed on Wednesday to establish a joint operations centre to oversee the creation of a safe zone to manage tensions between Ankara and US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

No details were provided on the size or nature of the safe zone, but the deal appeared to provide some breathing room after Turkey had threatened an imminent attack on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which control a large swathe of northern Syria.

“Syria categorically and clearly rejects the agreement between the American and Turkish occupiers on the establishment of a so-called safe zone” in northern Syria, a foreign ministry source told state news agency SANA.

“Syria’s Kurds who have accepted to become a tool in this aggressive US-Turkish project bear a historical responsibility,” the source added, urging Kurdish groups to return to the fold. 

Turkey has already carried out two cross-border offensives into Syria in 2016 and 2018, the second of which saw it and allied Syrian rebels overrun the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the northwest.

The deployment of Turkish troops and their proxies in Afrin has drawn accusations of a Turkish military occupation.

Damascus said the planned buffer zone further east serves “Turkey’s expansionist ambitions,” accusing both Ankara and Washington of violating its sovereignty.

– ‘New approach’ –

A senior Syrian Kurdish official gave the Turkish-US agreement a guarded welcome.

“This deal may mark the start of a new approach but we still need more details,” Aldar Khalil told AFP on Thursday. 

“We will evaluate the agreement based on details and facts, not headlines.”

The deal describes the planned safe zone as a “peace corridor” that can “ensure that our Syrian brothers will be able to return to their country”. 

Turkey has the highest number of Syrian refugees in the world at more than 3.6 million , and has faced increasing pressure domestically to speed up repatriations to peaceful parts of Syria.

While the Kurds have largely stayed out of the conflict between various rebel groups and the Damascus government, they have taken advantage of the war to set up an autonomous region in the northeast.

Across the border, Turkey has eyed this push for increased independence with suspicion, regarding its Kurdish leaders as “terrorists”.

Ankara views the YPG as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for the past 35 years.

But the YPG has been a key US ally in the fight against the Islamic State group.

As the fight against IS winds down in northeastern Syria, the prospect of a US military withdrawal has stoked Kurdish fears of a long threatened Turkish attack.

– Turkish troops –

To allay these fears, Washington earlier this year proposed setting up a 30-kilometre (18-mile) “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border.

The Kurds have agreed to a buffer zone, but disagree with the Turks on how wide it should be, or who should control it. 

Earlier this week, Khalil said the Kurds had agreed to a buffer zone around five kilometres (three miles) wide, but Turkey rejected the proposal.

He also said the Kurds had opened channels with the Russia-backed government, but it had not yet “made its true position clear despite the urgency of the situation”.

Wednesday’s deal comes at a delicate moment between Turkey and the US, who have grown increasingly estranged over a number of issues, including American support for the Kurds and Turkey’s decision to buy a Russian S-400 missile defence system.

It is also a tricky moment for Erdogan domestically after his party lost control of Istanbul and Ankara in municipal elections this year, and has seen high-profile defections.

In recent weeks, Turkish media have repeatedly shown images of military convoys heading for the border area, carrying equipment and fighting units.