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US presses for deal with Turkey to protect Syrian Kurdish partners

War of words between Bolton and Pompeo masks underlying diplomatic push

The U.S. intends to move forward with plans to negotiate a solution with Turkey in order to protect groups of Kurdish fighters who formed the primary Coalition partner force in the war against Islamic State in Syria after Turkish officials publicly rebuked an American delegation last week.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that talks were underway to establish a “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border.

“We want a secure border for all the parties,” Pompeo told reporters in Riyadh.

On Saturday, Pompeo said he was “confident” his government can negotiate an arrangement to protect their northeastern Syrian Kurdish partners while also ensuring Turkey’s security from “legitimate terror threats.”

He made the remarks to travelling press in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday after a phone call with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hours earlier, during which he said the two discussed the matter, but did not elaborate.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey's Minister for Foreign Affairs
Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the Munich Security Conference, February 2017. Image: Preiss/MSC/Wikimedia/CC BY 3.0 DE

“Many details still need to be worked out, but I’m optimistic that we can achieve a good outcome here,” Pompeo said.

“We recognize the Turkish people’s right and President Erdogan’s right to defend their country from terrorists, and we also know that those who aren’t terrorists, those who were fighting alongside of us for all this time, deserve to be protected as well.”

“We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those,” Pompeo said.

Asked whether the U.S. will be able to differentiate between “terrorist and not terrorist,” Pompeo said, “Yeah, I think we can.”

“We’re fully engaged. Ambassador Jeffrey is fully engaged in conversations with the Turks as well as with the SDF in Syria to make sure that we can accomplish all of these missions,” Pompeo told CBS’ Face the Nation from the United Arab Emirates on Saturday.

On Sunday, however, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened in a tweet to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

Trump also suggested a “20-mile safe zone” would be created, though it is unclear by which party. U.S. officials have been weighing options to negotiate the deployment alternative forces on the Turkey-Syria border as a buffer, including the Syrian Elite Forces and Rojava Peshmerga.

Turkey has long called for “safe zones” of various depths and was in talks with the Obama administration in 2015 for one that would have stretched 68 miles from Jarabulus to Marea and spread 40 miles from the Turkish border to the area outside Aleppo.

The NATO allies are at loggerheads over the fate of the mostly-Kurdish Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the the core of the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, the primary partner-force of the U.S.-led Coalition to defeat ISIS.

Ankara considers the group, and its political wing the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, to be the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, designated a terrorist organization by Ankara and its Western allies for its decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government.

But the U.S. and its Coalition allies do not consider the YPG a terrorist organization.

Local governance councils have been established in areas of north and east Syria captured by the SDF from ISIS over the objections of Ankara and Damascus.

On Monday, Erdogan’s spokesperson and advisor Ibrahim Kalin called on the U.S. to “honor our strategic partnership,” adding that the Turkish government will “continue to fight” against the PYD and YPG.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday that his government is not opposed to the creation of a safe-zone.

Ankara considers the establishment of the governance structures near its borders to be a threat to Turkey’s internal security, and has been amassing forces and threatening an imminent military incursion to clear areas of northern and eastern Syria of the YPG for months.

Trump set the stage for the crisis on December 14 when he accepted Erdogan’s request over the phone, reportedly without consulting any senior advisors, that American forces withdraw from Syria on the condition that Turkey assume the remaining fight against ISIS.

The U.S. military on Friday began shipping cargo from Syria, but has not yet begun withdrawing troops.

Though Washington has never publicly promised to directly support the northern Syrian political project, Syrian Democratic Council officials say the timing of the withdrawal will leave them vulnerable to Turkish air and ground attacks if they cannot obtain international guarantees or a deal with Damascus in time.

Both Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton last week claimed Erdogan had made a commitment to Trump during their phone call that those who fought with the U.S. against ISIS would be protected.

Ankara explicitly rejected that claim on Tuesday.

“It is not possible for us to make compromises on this point,” Erdogan told AKP lawmakers on Tuesday. “Those who are part of the terror corridor in Syria will receive the necessary lesson. There is no single difference between the PKK, YPG, PYD and Daesh.”

How the U.S. intends to convince Turkey to differentiate between the PKK, YPG and PYD is unclear.

U.S. State Department representatives were unavailable for comment due to the government shutdown.

Mike Pompeo
Mike Pompeo, pictured in February 2012 when he was CIA director. Image: Gage Skidmore/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

US officials visit Syria and Turkey

Two days before Pompeo’s optimistic comments, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey met with senior members of the Syrian Democratic Council, sources with knowledge of the discussions told The Defense Post on Thursday.

Syrian Democratic officials declined to confirm or deny the meeting took place, though Aldar Xelil, a senior member of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), the political coalition governing Syria’s north, said on Friday that his government understands that Jeffrey’s team is still working towards a solution with Turkey.

“We don’t have any formal guarantees yet,” Xelil told The Defense Post on Friday.

The meeting was closed to media at the last minute at Jeffrey’s request, a source with knowledge of the matter said. Jeffrey did not return requests for comment.

Pompeo said in his statements on Saturday that the senior diplomat would be returning to Ankara to continue discussions “before too long.”

Jeffrey traveled to northern Syria earlier after a U.S. delegation to Ankara failed to obtain a pledge of of security for their northern Syrian partners from Turkish officials on Tuesday.

The delegation, which was led by Bolton and included Jeffrey and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, was originally planned as a damage-control mission following Trump’s withdrawal decision.

After organizing an effort to resist any timeline handed down by the White House, U.S. officials planned to head to Ankara to leverage concerns within the Turkish government about “getting in over their heads” in the northern Syrian military incursion.

Turkish media have reported that two Turkish generals have been moved to desk duty over their objections to the mid-winter operation against experienced U.S.-armed and trained fighters in the face of international public opposition, though there may have been other reasons for their reassignment.

One senior American official insisted during the initial discussions following Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops that Turkey would most likely not launch a large-scale incursion with U.S. forces still present and that Erdogan’s belligerent rhetoric was mainly aimed at rousing political support.

“There is essentially no chance of a Turkish incursion at this point,” the official said, according to details of the conversations provided to The Defense Post. “This is in the realm of speculation, not fact.”

The original intent of the delegation was to negotiate with “the serious Turks,” as one official put it, about details of the planned operation so that the PYD and SDF might be preserved, and the ongoing fight against ISIS continued so that U.S. troops could withdraw.

The best hope for America’s Kurdish partners’ long-term security would be a peace deal between the Turkish government and the PKK, a U.S. official said at the time. But Ankara would not accept negotiations until after Turkey’s local elections at the end March, he added.

“It’s possible, but not possible now,” the official said on the day of the withdrawal announcement.

In reality, the official said, the plan would be more difficult. “If it turns out that we have no love from the Turks, then that will be a different situation. That will be back to presidential-level calls,” he said.

The most recent ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK broke down in 2015.

US Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Turkish national security adviser Ibrahim Kalin in Turkey
US Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Turkish national security adviser Ibrahim Kalin at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, Jan. 8, 2019. Image: Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro/US Navy

‘Sykes-Picot on acid’

The PKK leadership has repeatedly called on the U.S. to mediate the conflict with Turkey. Cemil Bayik, one of the group’s founders, said in 2015 the U.S. engaged in indirect talks with the group over the prospect.

Bayik has previously called for U.S. mediation on the Kurdish question.

If the Turkish government and the PKK were to come to an accord, this could help ensure protection for America’s northern Syrian partners, Turkish journalist and senior policy fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations Asli Aydıntaşbaş argued in the Washington Post on Wednesday.

In the meantime, experts say, a power-sharing deal backed by Turkey and the SDC in strategic parts of northern Syria is the most realistic option to preserve U.S. interests.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Jeffrey’s team had created a color-coded map to guide the planned Turkish invasion away from key Kurdish areas. One official called the map “Sykes-Picot on acid,” a reference to the secret 1916 agreement between Britain and France to carve spheres of influence out of the declining Ottoman Empire that eventually resulted in the modern borders in much of the Middle East.

But the discussions in Ankara on Tuesday apparently did not progress as far as tactical details, Middle East Eye reported a Turkish official as saying.

Bolton led the talks with Erdogan’s security advisor and spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin on Tuesday, which U.S. NSC spokesperson Garrett Marquis called “productive” in a statement, stating that the two sides “identified further issues for dialogue.”

US National security adviser John Bolton meets with Turkish national security adviser Ibrahim Kalin at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey,
US National security adviser John Bolton meets with Turkish national security adviser Ibrahim Kalin at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, Jan. 8, 2019. Image: Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro/US Navy

During the meeting, Bolton reportedly handed over a “non-paper” bearing a list of conditions to be met before the U.S. withdrawal.

The list, which included Washington’s opposition to the “mistreatment” of any forces that participation in the fight against ISIS, was reportedly approved by Bolton, Pompeo, Dunford, Jeffrey, and Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, an American official present at the meetings told the Associated Press.

The purpose of the “non-paper,” Bolton said in a radio interview on Friday, was “so that the Turks knew we were all speaking with one voice despite the media commentary that would have you believe otherwise.”

The demands struck a nerve in Ankara, where officials interpreted the move as attempt to undermine the apparent understanding between Trump and Erdogan.

The schedule was cut short when Erdogan declined to meet Bolton, citing a scheduling conflict.

Both the Turkish president and Kalin then publicly rebuked the American delegation.

“It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel,” Erdogan told representatives from his ruling AKP party on Tuesday, calling the American National Security Advisor’s comments a “serious mistake.”

Speaking in Jerusalem two days prior, Bolton dubbed the U.S. withdrawal a “cause and effect mission” dependent on a Turkish guarantee of protection for the Kurdish fighters who “fought with us against ISIS and other terrorist groups.”

“And once that’s done, then you talk about a timetable,” Bolton said last Sunday.

Bolton’s remarks angered Jeffrey, the Washington Post reported.

Prior to the Ankara meetings, some senior American officials had been careful not to signal to Turkey that the U.S. intended to protect the SDF as it would betray what they had been telling their Turkish counterparts.

A senior U.S. official warned Coalition commander Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera on the day of the withdrawal announcement that such a message could “trigger a strong Turkish reaction.”

Once in Ankara, Bolton reportedly told Turkish officials that an article written by Erdogan and published in the New York Times one day prior to the meetings was “wrong and offensive,” AP reported.

In the opinion piece, Erdogan lauded Trump’s decision to hand over the remaining fight against ISIS in Syria to Ankara, and asserted that Turkey, which boasts NATO’s second-largest standing army, is “the only country with the power and commitment to perform that task.”

In it, he implied that Ankara intends to replace the SDF with a Turkey-organized force, and purge people affiliated with the PYD and YPG from local governing councils in a restructuring process involving Turkish officials.

“It is not possible for us to make compromises on this point. Those who are part of the terror corridor in Syria will receive the necessary punishment. There is no single difference between the PKK, YPG, PYD and Daesh,” Erdogan said on Tuesday.

In June, State Department officials suggested that the structure of the Manbij Military Council could be reworked to satisfy Turkey, telling reporters during a conference call: “Manbij Military Council is significantly – significant majority Arab and local, and so obviously, critical elements of those structures we would anticipate would remain in place, and we’ll work this through with the Turks to make sure that they are comfortable with the long-term arrangements, as has been laid out in the roadmap.”

MMC spokesperson Shervan Derwish told The Defense Post at the time that the body would have a say and no one would be added to the council without its approval.

SDF weapons remain an issue

Following Erdogan’s statements on Wednesday, PYD co-chair Shahoz Hasan told the AP:  “We are getting ready to confront Turkish threats through resistance.”

The SDF has been digging defensive positions in strategic Syrian border cities such as Ras al-’Ayn (Serekaniye) and recruiting local civilians in Tal Abyad to resist any Turkey-backed operation, The Defense Post can confirm.

Turkish officials claim the U.S. assured Ankara in the past that it would take back arms supplied for operations against ISIS from the SDF once ISIS is defeated.

Other U.S.-backed groups have been permitted to keep small arms after leaving the Coalition: In 2017, officials allowed Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn (ShQ) to hold on to some small arms and light vehicles after the two parted ways over the militia’s activities.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu News Agency reported on January 8 that Dunford discussed the weapons issue with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of General Staff General Yasar Guler during their meeting on Tuesday.

YAT fighters, the Syrian Kurdish YPG’s Anti-Terror forces, June 2016. Image: Kurdishstruggle/flickr CC BY 2.0

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said in an interview with NTV on Thursday that prospect was unrealistic.

“We see that the U.S. has some difficulties with the withdrawal,” he said to parliament on Wednesday. “After being so closely intertwined with a terrorist organization, it’s not so easy to leave this terrorist organization.”

The SDC and Damascus

Before the U.S. can consider brokering a deal between the PYD and Ankara, trust needs to be built between the two NATO allies, experts say, which may be why Jeffrey’s team kept Syrian Democratic politicians in the dark leading up to the Ankara visit.

“Basically they’ve backed themselves into a place where there cannot be another strategy,” Aron Lund, a fellow at the Century Foundation, told The Defense Post.

Progress would need to be made on negotiations over the status of  strategic cities such as Manbij and Tal Abyad, said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East Security fellow at the Center for New American Security, told The Defense Post.

Without a clear mechanism, goals, a framework, or negotiators, however, the prospect of one single deal to solve the entire crisis between the SDC and Turkey, Lund said, is unlikely. “It would be a real diplomatic feat.”

“Imagining you can get a comprehensive deal that would be sustainable, that both sides would trust and respect in the long term, just because the U.S. happens to need it really quickly – I don’t think that’s realistic,” Lund said.

Asked how any party might successfully disentangle the PYD from the PKK, Lund said, “You don’t, that’s the short answer.”

If the U.S. wants such a deal in the short-term, Lund said, “that’s something they should’ve been doing years ago.”

The SDC has opened negotiations for a reconciliation deal with Damascus, a move suggested by American officials shortly after the withdrawal announcement, SDC executive council member Ilham Ehmed told The Defense Post in late December.

Earlier in January, senior SDF official Redur Xelil said that a deal with the regime was “inevitable because our areas are part of Syria.”

The SDC has submitted its roadmap to the Syrian government via intermediaries in Moscow, the Washington Post reported last week. The proposal is still under consideration.

James Jeffrey
US Ambassador James F. Jeffrey swears in as Special Representative for Syria Engagement, at the US Department of State on August 17, 2018. Image: US State Dept/Ron Przysucha

SDC officials say they are unwilling to accept a return to centralized authority for the north, but are willing to make some concessions, such as the eventual integration of the SDF into the Syrian Arab Army.

“If [the regime] returns, will they only defend the border areas? Will they be concentrated in service institutions? What will the relationship between the central [government] and the [northern] autonomous administration look like?” Aldar Xelil said.

Syria’s Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan told journalists in Damascus on Sunday that he hopes the talks intensify, Reuters reported. Last Sunday, however, Bolton said the U.S. had “told the Kurds our best judgment is that you stand fast now.”

“I think they know who their friends are,” Bolton said.

Jeffrey himself asked SDF commander General Mazlum to delay any agreements with the Assad government while the U.S. worked to formulate a strategy, WSJ reported on January 5.

The U.S. has not yet accepted the SDC’s requests for a no-fly zone, Aldar Xelil told The Defense Post.

A senior administration official travelling with Bolton’s Ankara delegation said last Friday that the U.S. had been discussing the possibility of maintaining control of the airspace over northeastern Syria, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Syrian opposition groups have repeatedly called upon the international community for a no-fly zone throughout the war.

French officials told Ilham Ehmed and SDC co-chair Riad Derar during talks in Paris last month that such an undertaking depended on U.S. and European Union consent.

“We have no other options,” Ahmed told The Defense Post in December. “If there is a Turkish incursion, they will conduct airstrikes.”

“The Americans have not agreed amongst themselves on the matter yet,” Aldar Xelil told The Defense Post on Friday. “Their discussions are not yet finished.”

“The biggest challenge is that Jeffrey has to demonstrate to the SDF that he can be an honest broker between them and Turkey,” Heras said.

“They have always maintained their relationship with the central government,” a former senior Syrian regime intelligence official told The Defense Post. “The communication never stopped throughout the war.”

“The Kurds have had one foot in each side,” he said. “They always knew the Americans would leave sometime.”

Concerns about the Trump administration’s commitment to remain in Syria earlier this year prompted discussions between the SDC and the Assad regime in July, but the talks stalled in August.

On Saturday, Pompeo suggested the U.S. may be prepared to accept a closer relationship between their northern Syrian partners and Damascus.

“This long predates the civil war,” he said, adding that the U.S “needs to be mindful of the histories of these people as well, and respectful of that.”

The Americans “are not happy about our communication with the regime. But they told us this is our right,” a source with knowledge of the negotiations told The Defense Post on Tuesday, prior to Jeffrey’s arrival.

“Believe me, we’re not happy about it either.”

“What can we tell them?”: US general pressed for reassurance for SDF after Syria withdrawal decision

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