ISTANBUL, Feb. 2 (Xinhua) — Turkey could do little to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria if the new U.S. president’s decision to establish safe zones there includes as expected Kurds-controlled cantons, analysts told Xinhua.
“Turkey has zero chance of blocking such an eventuality. The area is outside its borders,” said Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations with Ankara-based Middle East Technical University (METU).
Turkey has long expressed its concern about a Kurdish corridor along its southern border, arguing that the Kurdish expansion in Syria is illegitimate and that the Kurdish fighters are members of a terrorist organization.
U.S. President Donald Trump said last week that he would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria” for people fleeing the civil war in the Arab country.
“Under the current circumstances, Turkey stands no chance of stopping the emergence of a Kurdish entity in Syria,” observed Cahit Armagan Dilek, director of the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.
Turkey is particularly concerned that the emergence of an autonomous or independent Kurdish entity in northern Syria may set a precedent for its own nearly 20 million Kurds and encourage Kurdish separatism at home.
It is also widely argued that such a Kurdish belt, de facto linked with the territory ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government in neighboring Iraq, would physically cut off Turkey from the Arab world.
Kurdish militia forces, members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), have carved out three autonomous cantons along Turkey’s border since Syria was plunged into chaos in March 2011.
Ankara waded militarily in Syria in August last year to push the Islamic State (IS) away from its border and block the cantons from uniting.
Turkey, which officially hosts around 2.8 million Syrian refugees, has long enthusiastically sought to convince its Western allies, particularly the U.S., of the establishment of a safe zone in Syria’s north for the refugees.
Despite Trump’s remarks, the Turkish government has so far remained cautious about his move, which suggests it may have some misgivings about the initiative.
“The results of Trump’s work on this issue (of safe zones) need to be seen first,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week.
Russia has signalled it would not oppose the U.S. initiative as long as the Syrian government agreed to the safe zone plan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia sees the U.S. move as being aimed, as was declared by Trump, at easing the migration burden on neighbouring countries as well as on Europe and the U.S.
“Of course, this would call for coordinating the details and the underlying principle for such zones with the Syrian government,” Lavrov told a press conference on Monday.
Sait Yilmaz, a security and foreign policy analyst, does not think the Turkish government would dare to resist the safe zone plan.
Noting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feels quite isolated in foreign relations, he said “so the government can’t afford to come into conflict with either the U.S. or Russia.”
Analysts feel that creating safe havens for potential refugees is more an excuse used to legitimize the formation of safe zones which could later develop into autonomous entities in a federal Syria.
“The formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria is strongly possible,” remarked Bagci.
“This is undoubtedly a step aimed at placing the Kurdish-controlled areas under protection. The U.S. is establishing a (Kurdish) state there,” stated Yilmaz, who previously lectured at various Turkish universities.
All signs indicate Syria is heading for federalism, Ismail Hakki Pekin, a retired general who headed the Turkish General Staff’s intelligence unit, said on Ulusal TV on Wednesday.
He noted that Washington had supplied the YPG with many anti-tank missiles as well as rocket launchers in a bid to transform the Kurdish militia into a modern army.
Grappling with growing terror attacks at home by separatist Kurdish militias and the IS militants for more than a year, Turkey perceives the formation of a Kurdish state in Syria as an existential threat.
A couple of days before Trump delivered remarks about safe zones, President Erdogan had voiced concern about rumors regarding an eventual breakup of Syria and Iraq, saying Turkey would not agree to the emergence of several new states in the region.
Two days after Trump’s statement to the ABC News, Erdogan was quoted by local media as saying that Turkish troops would not go any further than al-Bab into the Syrian territory.
In sharp contrast, Erdogan and other top Turkish officials had said in recent past that the Turkish troops would head, after seizing al-Bab, toward YPG-held Manbij and the IS stronghold of Raqqa.
The Turkish forces, backed by the rebel Free Syrian Army militants, have been fighting for months to drive out the IS from al-Bab, a town about 30 km from the Turkish border.
Idlib and Raqqa are among the few major towns which are currently under the control of radical Islamist groups, while the Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, regained control in many towns last year.
Washington sees the Kurdish militias as a reliable ground force against the IS in Syria and militarily supports the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is composed to a large extent of YPG members.
There are signs of increasing military support to Kurds after Trump took office on Jan. 20.
The U.S. has just provided the SDF with armored vehicles for the first time. The move came ahead of an expected joint offensive by the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF against Raqqa, seen as IS’ de facto capital.
The armored vehicles will help the SDF forces contend with IS improvised explosives as they move toward Raqqa, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway was quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency late Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, SDF spokesman Talal Silo drew attention to the exceptionality of the U.S. latest supply of weapons by telling Reuters that they were provided with only light weapons and ammunition in the past.
Turkey says the Kurdish expansion is illegitimate, arguing the Kurdish militia ethnically cleansed the areas it captured by driving local Arabs away in a bid to create a Kurdish-dominated region in northern Syria.
Ankara has long criticized Washington for providing weapons to the YPG, which is seen by Turkey as the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The PKK has been waging a bloody war against Turkey since 1984 to carve out an autonomous, if not independent, Kurdistan in the country’s mainly Kurdish-populated southeast.
“The U.S. and Russia seem to have reached a top-level consensus regarding Kurds,” stated Dilek, a former military officer.
Russia has gotten what it wanted in Syria and would let the U.S. have what it wants for Kurds, observed Yilmaz.
“Russia and the U.S. have a tacit agreement over (the future of) Syria. Global powers don’t take into account regional powers in their calculations,” he added.
In response to Trump’s move on safe zones, the Syrian government on Monday described his attempt, if not coordinated with Damascus, as “unsafe action” that would violate the country’s sovereignty.
Analysts, however, believe that Syria, with its military being greatly weakened by years of fighting, would settle for a federal Syria to maintain the country’s territorial integrity.
“Syria already signalled it would not oppose that,” said METU’s Bagci, noting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said ahead of Astana talks that he was ready to negotiate anything with the opposition groups.
The Syrian government and rebel groups other than those recognized as terror groups by the international community gathered together at the Kazakh capital last month for peace talks.
“Damascus looks ready to make concessions to Kurds to keep them part of Syria,” Dilek remarked.
“Kurds are strong and the realities on the ground impose Kurdish autonomy,” he said, noting the Kurdish militia in Syria has so far captured from the IS an area of more than 3,000 square kilometers.