Fighters from the Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ) attend the funeral of a fellow fighter, who was killed while fighting ISIS, in Qamishli on February 9, 2019. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
As US troops are slated to withdraw from Syria in the near future, there has been no substantial headway made on the safe zone in the country's Kurdish-majority northeast proposed by US President Donald Trump to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"There is no satisfactory plan that is put before us concretely yet," Erdogan said on February 5.
One major reason this 32-kilometre safe zone remains on the drawing board is due to the fact that neither Ankara nor Washington have formulated a plan that will satisfy both Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish forces Turkey wants to destroy.
In other words, no plan that involves a reasonable compromise.
For the Turkish government, a successful safe zone is its forces and Syrian militiamen proxies controlling all of the border and clearing it of any Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) forces.
In January, Erdogan unequivocally declared that no safe zone could possibly work unless the YPG is removed from that designated area, adding that: "For us, there is no difference between Daesh [ISIS] and the YPG."
In turn, the YPG and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), will not sign off on a safe zone that has any Turkish military presence in it.
Aldar Khalil, a senior Syrian Kurdish official, said that United Nations forces should be deployed between Turkey and the Kurds.
"Other choices are unacceptable as they infringe on the sovereignty of Syria and the sovereignty of our autonomous region," Khalil told AFP.
Salih Muslim, the former co-chair of the PYD, was more direct in expressing the Kurdish opposition to any Turkish role.
"Any Turkish intervention in northern Syria would complicate things," Muslim told Asharq Al-Awsat on February 6.
"Residents should consider the presence of Turkey as an invasion, and should therefore confront it," he added. "We reject any Turkish presence and we demand an internationally-sponsored security zone in the presence of international observers against any Turkish intervention."
While Khalil suggested a safe zone enforced by the UN, presumably by international peacekeepers, it's unclear if a UN endeavour would succeed. Something resembling the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) along the Syrian-Turkish border would unlikely deter Turkey effectively as the US military forces currently patrolling that border does.
Also, UNIFIL and other such deployments are unreliable since the various nations that make up the actual peacekeepers have a tendency to pull their troops out if an actual conflict occurs.
One perfect example was Austria in 2013. Austria had 380 troops as part of the UN peacekeeping force monitoring the demilitarized border area between Israel and Syria. When the spillover from the Syrian conflict slightly endangered its troops, Vienna withdrew them all.
That incident alone showed how unreliable UN commitments are. Even if the UN does commit a peacekeeping force to the Syrian-Turkish border and successfully deploys it, it will unlikely stay and actually try and enforce the peace if and when Turkey launches its long promised east of the Euphrates operation.
Then there is the fact that UN ceasefires in Syria, even those imposed as a result of approved Security Council resolutions, have not lasted or had much success.
The Syrian regime itself would likely oppose the deployment of foreign forces, even those operating under the UN flag, on its territory in the long-term.
Mere days before Trump's shock announcement on December 19 that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria, the US-led coalition brokered a meeting between a delegation of Rojava Peshmerga from the Kurdistan Region and the PYD.
The Rojava Peshmerga are an army of Syrian Kurds trained by the Kurdistan Region's Peshmerga. They have fought ISIS alongside the Peshmerga but have been denied entry by the PYD into Syria's Kurdish regions since the PYD only recognizes the YPG, and the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that it essentially controls, as a legitimate armed force in those regions.
After meeting the delegation and with coalition encouragement the PYD still did not budge last December and the Rojava Peshmerga remain in the Kurdistan Region.
The PYD has suppressed the activities of the Kurdistan National Council (KNC or ENKS), the political wing of the Rojava Peshmerga, for years now. This has soured relations between the PYD and the Kurdistan Region.
Despite this, the Kurdistan Region does not want to see another war break out between Turkey and the YPG in Syria. Consequently, sending that delegation in December was likely done so with the hope that the PYD would change its mind and the Rojava Peshmerga could replace the YPG along the border and stave off any potential Turkish ground operation.
In spite of its fundamental disagreements, to say the least, with the PYD over the years, ENKS staunchly opposes Turkish military action against those Kurdish-led forces. Turkey's invasion of Afrin demonstrated that Ankara, despite Erdogan's dubious claims, doesn't just oppose the PYD but has taken measures, such as forced demographic change/ethnic cleansing in Afrin, that have resulted in the persecution all Syrian Kurds.
When US troops leave Syria, Turkey will have a huge advantage since it can simply keep its forces on its own border and wait for that withdrawal and then pounce on the YPG when it sees the opportunity.
In the meantime, the only thing the PYD can, and will likely, do is work to reach an agreement with Damascus, which could tragically entail surrendering Syrian Kurdistan's hard-won autonomy, in hopes that it can avert an otherwise inevitable Turkish invasion.