Efforts underway for safe zone in northern Syria to reduce risk of terror attacks on Turkey, Pompeo says

S. Secretary of State Pompeo said Friday that efforts were underway to set up a safe zone in northern Syria to reduce the risk of terror attacks on Turkey.

Speaking at a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas following their meeting in Berlin, Pompeo underlined that the U.S. will continue to support U.N. efforts for a political solution in Syria and continue its efforts to reduce risk of violence.

“You’ve seen the work that we have done with the Turks in Manbij the west of the Euphrates River,” Pompeo said referring to the joint patrols by the U.S. and Turkish troops in the area.

“And we are attempting to set up a system something that can add to that. Call it a buffer zone, call it what you will … That will reduce the risk of terrorists attacking from Syria into Turkey,” he said.

Asked about local media reports that claimed U.S. administration was seeking military support from Germany and other allies for setting up such a safe zone, Pompeo confirmed that the talks were underway between the partners.

“We’ve committed our forces there … and we’ve asked our European partners to assist us. As we develop the plans, we’ll see what the force requirements would actually look like,” he said.

Pompeo underlined that the planned safe zone also intends to prevent further tensions between Turkey and the U.S.-backed groups in the area.

Meanwhile, German magazine Der Spiegel claimed on Friday that Germany also welcomed the idea of a safe zone in the region and agreed to support it militarily. The magazine claimed that following secret negotiations between Washington and Berlin, the German government signaled that it is ready for a military contribution to protect the safe zone. The magazine also claimed that if the Bundestag approves the duration of the duty of German soldiers on the ground, German air forces will be able to contribute to the U.S. in the safe zone.

The idea of a safe zone has been mentioned several times over the years by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has maintained that the terror-free safe zone to be established in Syria’s north must be based on the country’s territorial integrity. Erdoğan announced in January that Turkey would establish a safe zone along the length of its Syrian border with the assistance of U.S.-led coalition forces.

However, one big obstacle remains before such a zone can be set up: the presence of a terror group.

The town of Manbij and its surrounding area are controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate People’s Protection Units (YPG) terrorist group, since August 2016 after ousting Daesh terrorists who captured the town from the moderate opposition in January 2014.

Turkey strongly opposes the YPG’s presence in Manbij, which has been a major sticking point in strained Turkey-U.S. relations due to the latter’s support for the YPG under the pretext of fighting Daesh. The YPG has organic organizational and operational links with the PKK, a group considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the EU and Turkey. The U.S. has provided military training and given truckloads of military support to the YPG, despite its NATO ally’s security concerns.

To reduce tensions, Turkey and the U.S. agreed on a road map in June 2018 foreseeing the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij and installing joint Turkish-American patrols, which began in November. However, the process has been sluggish as the terrorist group was still present in the city despite the three-month timetable set for implementing the deal.

Erdoğan has been suggesting since 2012 that a safe zone of 30-40 kilometers could be established between the northern Syrian towns of Jarablus and al-Rai. However, the plan did not come to fruition at the time. The details of the safe zone need to be ironed out; yet, one thing is clear: Turkey is firmly against the presence of the YPG in the region. A region free of terrorists along its border would reduce Ankara’s concerns to an extent.

Ankara has been pointing out that it will not allow the YPG to strengthen its grip in Syria. Turkey is also prepared to launch an operation east of the Euphrates to eliminate the YPG. However, following the U.S.’ decision to withdraw from Syria, Ankara decided to put the operation on hold for some time. While establishing a safe zone would eliminate some of Turkey’s concerns, the presence of the YPG in Syria and its plan to form a quasi-state will continue to present a threat to the country.

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