US-Turkey centre for Syria buffer zone to open next week

A joint Turkish-US operation centre to establish and manage a safe zone in northeast Syria will be fully operational next week, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Friday.

Turkey and the United States agreed last week to set up the joint operations centre for the proposed zone along Syria’s northeast border but gave few details, such as the size of the zone itself or the command structure of forces that would operate there.

Earlier this week a US delegation visited southern Turkey to work on getting the centre started, and Turkish drones began carrying out work in the area where the safe zone will be created, the defence ministry said.

“The joint operation centre will start working with full capacity next week,” Mr Akar was quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency.

Mr Akar said that Turkish and US officials have agreed that Syrian Kurdish YPG militia fighters should be removed from the area and their heavy weapons should be taken.

Washington and Ankara have been at odds over plans for northeastern Syria, where the YPG formed the main part of a US-backed force which fought against ISIS.

Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organisation and the Syrian offshoot of its own outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party that has waged a decadeslong insurgency against Ankara.

“There has been certain progress. It marks a good start. There are still things to be done, the efforts will continue,” Mr Akar was quoted as saying by Anadolu.

Ankara and Washington have also agreed in general terms about control and coordination of air space in the region, Mr Akar was reported as saying.

Last week, retired US general Joseph Votel, the former chief of American troops in the Middle East, publicly opposed Ankara’s control of such a zone.

In an opinion piece published on The National Interest’s website last Monday, Mr Votel, who headed the US Central Command until last March, warned that a Syrian security zone controlled by Turkey would “create more problems for all parties involved.

“Safe zones are generally established to protect people in conflict zones and are usually designed to be neutral, demilitarized and focused on humanitarian purposes,” Mr Votel wrote in the article with George Washington University Turkey expert Gonul Tol.

“Imposing a 20-mile-deep (30 kilometre) safe zone east of the Euphrates would have the opposite effect – likely displacing more than 90 per cent of the Syrian Kurdish population, exacerbating what is already an extremely challenging humanitarian situation and creating an environment for increased conflict,” they wrote.