Guess Who's Against a "Safe Zone" in Northern Syria? U.S.-Backed Kurds

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Guess Who's Against a "Safe Zone" in Northern Syria? U.S.-Backed Kurds

Turkish soldiers overlooking the Syrian town of Kobani. Kurdish forces have captured regions near the Turkish frontier, but Ankara says it will resist a further Kurdish advance with military force. (Photo: AFP/Getty)

Some folks would have you believe that it would be all unicorns and ponies in Syria if only President Obama weren't so reluctant to use military force. If only President Obama would send more ground troops, or establish a "safe zone" along the Turkey-Syria border, or impose a "no fly zone," or bomb more with less concern about civilian casualties - why, we'd have ISIS whipped faster than you can say, "The Turkish government hates journalists more than they hate ISIS."

"Safe zone" - what an endearing and attractive phrase! Who could object to something so attractively named? But apparently U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS object. Who knew?

AP reports:

Fighting between U.S.-backed Syrian rebels and rival militants has killed more than 20 people in northern Syria over the past two days, opposition activists said on Monday. The fighting between the so-called Democratic Forces of Syria, which is led by Kurds, and Islamic militants has flared in recent days in the northern province of Aleppo. Most of the fighting has taken place in the border area, where Turkey is examining the possibility of creating a safe zone to protect civilians and moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting is concentrated near the town of Azaz, close to the border with Turkey. Azaz has been repeatedly hit by Russian airstrikes in recent days.


Bahaa al-Halaby, an opposition activist based in Aleppo, said on Monday that ... the fighting began when DFS launched an offensive and captured several villages before being pushed back by militants. "I think the aim of this attack is to thwart attempts to set up a safe zone," al-Halaby said via Skype.

The DFS is led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units, which has been battling the Islamic State group across northern and eastern Syria with the aid of U.S.-led airstrikes. Turkey views the Kurdish forces, known by the acronym YPG, as an extension of the Kurdish PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara.

The YPG sees the plans for a safe zone as an effort by Turkey to use allied Syrian rebel factions to block its advance along the border.

Some folks talk about a "safe zone" as if we all know and agree on what a "safe zone" is. But according to the government of Turkey, the purpose of a "safe zone" is to protect Turkish-backed "Islamic militants" who are fighting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces for control of the Syria-Turkey border.

What are the Russians doing in this story? Western leaders complained that the Russians bombed Western-backed "moderate rebels" opposed to Assad. But AP implies that in this case "moderate rebels" being bombed by Russia are Turkish-backed "Islamic militants" fighting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces for control of the Syria-Turkey border. Of course, if U.S.-backed Kurdish forces controlled the border, that would cut ISIS' supply lines from Turkey.

It appears that the Turkish government's grievance against Russia is that Russia is helping execute the U.S. policy of helping Syrian Kurds close the border against ISIS, a U.S. policy that the Turkish government has worked to thwart.

Al Jazeera reports:

Moscow seems to be moving closer to a group that has been the US-led coalition's main ground force in Syria - a group which Turkey, itself a member of that coalition, calls "terrorists".

The Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG) is a US-backed Kurdish group that has pushed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) back from areas along the border with Turkey. In an attempt to change the solely "Kurdish face" of anti-ISIL ground troops, it aligned with some Arab brigades to form "the Syria Democratic Forces" (SDF).


The SDF are now engaged in a fierce battle with Turkey-backed opposition factions in what is considered to be an important corner of Syria - the northern countryside of Aleppo. To be more specific: the area west of the Euphrates River, which Turkey calls a red line.

The SDF captured some opposition-controlled towns close to the Turkish border of Kilis - known in Syria as Bab al-Salameh, an important lifeline for rebel groups. Russian air strikes have been targeting the area for days now.

Control there would allow the YPG to link predominantly Kurdish villages in the north, like Afrin, to areas under its administration from the town of Kobane to the Iraqi border. To do this, the YPG must first take control of Jarablous, an ISIL-controlled town along Turkey's border.


Days before the Russian plane was shot down, the US said it would start an operation with Turkey to finish securing the northern Syrian border area to cut off the remaining ISIL lifeline. Since then, there has been no talk about this military operation.

The rules may now have changed. The YPG has still not pushed west of the Euphrates, but along with its allies, and with the help of Russian strikes, the SDF are threatening Turkey-backed opposition groups in another key border crossing, Kilis, west of Jarablous. Losing control of the northern countryside of Aleppo would be a setback for the opposition. Turkey, too, would lose influence.

It almost seems like the Russians are pursuing a policy of doing things in Syria that the U.S. would do if Turkey wouldn't object.

No wonder John McCain and Lindsey Graham are so eager to get 10,000 U.S. ground troops into Syria. Folks in Peoria might think: if the Russians are willing to do something in Syria instead of the U.S., that's great, that's one less thing that we have to do. Who cares if it bothers the Turkish government? But that's not how McCain and Graham see the world. According to McCain and Graham, if Russia does something in Syria that the U.S. would do if the government of Turkey wouldn't object, that's a threat to our way of life.

You can urge Congress to oppose sending U.S. ground troops to Syria here.

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East. You can contact him here.

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