US to ask Syrian Kurds to let Turkish forces through the door

The United States is pressing its Kurdish allies in Syria to ease their resistance to allowing Turkish forces to deploy on their side of the Turkish-Syrian border, well-informed sources told Al-Monitor. The Turkish forces would be a part of the proposed safe zone in northeastern Syria.

US officials are pushing for “a limited number” of Turkish forces to be allowed to deploy on the Syrian side of the border, along a stretch of territory running from the east of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, according to a senior official from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The source told Al-Monitor, “The subject has already been broached with us and we regard the presence of Turkish troops on our soil as extremely problematic and have made our position clear.”

The source said that the Donald Trump administration’s Syria envoy, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, was expected to travel to northeastern Syria in the coming days, when he is likely to renew demands that Turkish forces be allowed to enter northeastern Syria.

SDF commander in chief Mazlum Kobane is known to be viscerally opposed to any intrusion by Turkish forces. But Kobane is also a firm advocate of maintaining the partnership with the United States, which puts him in a bind. Another SDF official told Al-Monitor that the US demand would never be accepted.

Jeffrey said at an annual conference of Turkish American business lobbies in Washington that Turkey and the United States had yet to agree on the contours of a safe zone plan, though they continued to work on it. Jeffrey’s comments, translated into Turkish on Turkey’s NTV news channel, made clear that the United States understood Turkey’s security concerns and that the sides were focused on a plan that would exclude the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Vaguely defined “locals” are supposed to replace the YPG. “Arabs in Arab-majority areas and Kurds in others,” the second SDF official said, confirming knowledge of the plan.

The YPG is the driving force of the SDF, but it is also linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has fought for Kurdish independence and now for self-rule inside Turkey since 1984. Turkey says the two groups are the same — terrorists — and pose an existential risk to Turkey’s national security. Turkey is furious that the United States is continuing its partnership with the YPG. Hardly a day passes without a pro-government news outlet publishing “proof” of further American treachery.

US officials privately acknowledge there is little difference between the YPG and the PKK. Yet they cling to the fanciful notion that the YPG can be peeled away from the PKK and its commanders in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now Washington is reportedly telling YPG-linked Syrian Kurds in the SDF to “leave the YPG,” while whispering vague promises of getting Turkey back to the negotiating table with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose moral authority over the movement remains unchallenged some 20 years after he was captured with the CIA’s help.

More likely, the United States will do the leaving. Richard Outzen, senior adviser for Syria engagement at the State Department, spoke at a panel organized by a pro-government Turkish think tank, the SETA Foundation, in Washington today, saying, “The US will withdraw its troops from Syria, but there are a number of tasks for stabilization that have to be done before. Removing troops does not mean the US is withdrawing its policy.”

Interestingly, Outzen also said, “It’s been increasingly hard to get a single coherent policy on Syria in the bilateral relations.”

His words could well have been interpreted as a jab at US officials, notably those in Central Command, who want to preserve the alliance with the SDF and have pushed back against Trump’s announcement in December that he was withdrawing all US troops from Syria in 30 days.

The withdrawal has been deferred but not rescinded.