DARBASIYAH, Syria — The creation of a so-called “safe zone” in northeastern Syria has gotten off to good start, with U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces pulling back from a small, initial area along the Turkish border, a Syrian Kurdish official said — but calm can only prevail if Turkey also removes its troops.
Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the executive committee of the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Council, said the understanding reached between Washington and Ankara last month, and in coordination with the Syrian Kurdish-led forces, constitutes a step toward starting a dialogue over mutual security concerns.
The main U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia has begun withdrawing its fighters from two towns near Turkey’s border, part of a deal for a so-called safe zone in northeastern Syria involving the U.S. and Turkey, the Kurdish-led regional administration in northern Syria said Tuesday.
“We seek to find a way to dialogue, and starting to implement this plan expresses our readiness and seriousness,” Ahmed said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.
“We want to tell the world and the coalition that we are ready to take serious steps to get to dialogue,” she added.
Turkey views the U.S-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria as an extension of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Ankara has already carried out military offensives inside Syria to push the group away from the western end of the border. Over the last weeks, Turkish officials threatened a similar offensive in northeastern Syria, where troops from the U.S.-led coalition are deployed to help the Syrian Kurdish-led forces in combatting remnants of the Islamic State group.
The Syrian Kurds have been America’s only partners on the ground in Syria’s chaotic civil war. With U.S. backing, they proved to be the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State group and announced its territorial defeat earlier this year. The Kurds now worry about being abandoned by the U.S. amid Turkish threats to invade Syria, and are keen to work out an agreement with both parties that would safeguard their gains.
Ankara and Washington announced last month that they would begin measures to implement a border “safe zone” to address Turkish security concerns. The Kurdish-led forces are expected to pull out of the zone, but details must still be worked out — including who then would patrol and administer it.
Turkey’s defense minister said Saturday that military officials from Turkey and the United States have begun work to create a “safe zone” along its border in northeastern Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend repeated threats of an offensive if Turkey’s demands on the zone are not satisfied, including that its soldiers control the area.
Ahmed said more U.S. troops will probably be needed to implement the zone, though the Americans have not said whether they will deploy any.
“In the coming days, and because of the needs of the formation and implementation of the security mechanism, they may need more forces. It is not yet clear what the U.S. administration would decide,” she said.
There was no immediate comment from the U.S.-led coalition.
There are around 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria on a mission to combat IS militants. President Donald Trump had said he wants to bring the troops home, but military officials have advocated a phased approach.
Ahmed said initial steps have been positive, but for calm to prevail, Turkish troops must also retreat from the Syrian borders. She said while Turkey expresses concerns about the Kurdish-led forces, it is Ankara that has been a source of threat to Syria with the various military operations and its military posts in western Syria.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that the U.S. intends to prevent any unilateral invasion by Turkey into northern Syria, saying any such move by the Turks would be unacceptable.
The Kurdish-led forces have begun removing fortifications along the border and have moved some troops away from the border. At least two U.S-Turkish joint reconnaissance flights have flown over the area, and on Tuesday, joint patrols between U.S. troops and Kurdish-led forces also examined the area where fortifications have been removed.
The deal envisions an area five to 14 kilometers deep (three to eight miles) with no YPG presence, as well as removal of heavy weapons from a 20-kilometer-deep zone (12 miles), she said. Turkey wants a deeper zone. The length of the zone has not yet been agreed on, but will likely stretch hundreds of kilometers (miles).
Ahmed said discussions over other details of the security mechanism will open the way for Syrians who had been displaced from those areas, many of them fled to Turkey, to return. Turkey is home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees and Ankara said it wants the safe zone to provide an opportunity for many to return home.
Ahmed said only those originally from eastern Syria would be allowed to return. Kurdish officials worry Turkey wants to bring back large numbers of Syrians to the areas, which were previously controlled by IS militants, changing the demographic balance in the area. Syria’s Kurds are predominantly from the country’s northeast, living in mixed or Kurdish-dominated villages and towns there. She said no residents will be displaced because of the implementation of the safe zone.
“Calm must bring with it sustainable dialogue. Calm alone is not enough,” Ahmed said. “If Turkish troops don’t pull away from the borders, it will always be considered a threat.”
Another top Kurdish official, Aldar Khalil, said the Kurdish-led administration and forces would not accept Turkish forces or permanent bases in the so-called safe zone or a free hand for Turkish flights over the area.
He said while an understanding has been reached, a final deal would constitute an indirect Turkish recognition of the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria. He said, however, a final deal is not imminent.