ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Washington is working with Turkey to establish a safe zone along the border of northern Syria which excludes the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), US Syria envoy James Jeffrey told a press briefing Monday.
Commenting on the latest developments in the US-led coalition strategy in Syria following the defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Baghouz, northeast Syria on Saturday, the US special representative for Syria engagement said this is what US President Donald Trump had agreed with his Turkish counterpart.
“In terms of the Kurds, what we are working with is with Turkey to have a safe zone of some length along the Turkish border where there would be no YPG forces because Turkey feels very nervous about the YPG and their ties to the PKK. We understand that President Trump has made that clear to President Erdogan,” Jeffrey said.
“But we also do not want anyone mishandling our SDF partners, some of whom are Kurds, so therefore we are working for a solution that will meet everybody’s needs,” he added.
Although the US will maintain a residual force in northeast Syria, Jeffrey said the role of the coalition is to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS – not to operate safe zones.
“We’re not really looking at a coalition to be peacekeepers or anything like that. We’re asking coalition personal to continue to contribute and to up their contribution to our de-ISIS operations in Syria, and we’re getting a pretty good response initially. But the mission is de-ISIS, defeat of ISIS, it’s not to operate in any safe zone,” he said.
SDF fighters take a selfie in the village of Baghouz, northeast Syria, March 24, 2019. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP
The YPG makes up the backbone of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which led the ground war against ISIS across northern Syria. However, Ankara views the YPG as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group fighting for greater Kurdish political and cultural rights in Turkey. Both groups deny the link.
Turkey has repeatedly threatened to invade Kurdish-held northeast Syria, expanding its 2018 ‘Olive Branch’ operation which saw Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies seize Afrin from the YPG.
The presence of US-led coalition forces helped shield this fledgling autonomous administration from attack.
Now ISIS has been defeated in northeast Syria, SDF commanders fear the international coalition will withdraw, leaving them exposed to attack.
Jeffrey insisted the US mission in northeast Syria is not over, despite the ongoing drawdown.
“This is not the end of the fight against ISIS. That will go on, but it will be a different kind of fight,” Jeffrey said.
“ISIS has lost much of its capability to project terrorist power and to have a recruiting base in an area that it controls. So it’s a very, very important development.”
“Our forces will stay on in very limited numbers in the northeast to continue our clearing operations and stability operations against ISIS for a period of time not to be determined at this point,” he added.
Jeffrey said the withdrawal began “right after the President announced it in December, first with priority on equipment but now beginning on forces being withdrawn.”
“We had to reinforce initially to bring in more combat power and now we’re going back down towards what the final number will be,” he added.
'We do not tolerate threats'
Redur Khalil, an SDF spokesperson, told Rudaw the SDF does not want another war in the region, but will resist if attacked.
“If the geography that is liberated with war and under our control is under threat, we will not remain silent. We will use channels to protect our rights and we do not tolerate threats posed to our nation in this geography,” Khalil said, speaking at a ceremony to mark the territorial defeat of ISIS on Saturday.
“We paid with thousands of martyrs not for a fresh invasion of our territory or to allow their authority over us,” Khalil said.
“As the SDF, we will protect this land to the end.”
Updated 11.17 p.m.