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Safe zone in northern Syria depends on U.S.-Turkey balancing act

soldiers on foot patrolling a town, with tanks in the background
U.S. and SDF forces on patrol in Al-Darbasiyah, in northeastern Syria. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

The provisional agreement the U.S. and Turkey announced last week regarding security in northern Syria marks a positive step for the two NATO allies, whose priorities in the Syrian conflict have often diverged.

Why it matters: The proposed safe zone and guarantees to pull the U.S.–backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces could help assuage Turkish concerns about a Kurdish insurgency while preserving the counter-ISIS campaign and critical stabilization efforts in northeastern Syria.

How it works: The deal would create a joint U.S.-Turkey military operations center in southern Turkey to potentially establish a buffer zone up to 18 miles into northern Syria, which could also facilitate the return of Syrian refugees.

The catch: The Syrian Democratic Forces sees Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels as existential threats and in the past year has made overtures to Russia and the Syrian government.

  • Without a clear and sustained deconfliction mechanism, Turkish incursions to preserve its own security interests could spark further clashes between two U.S. partners, opening a new front in the war.

Background: Turkey has long expressed national security concerns over the predominance of Kurdish elements in the SDF, which were trained by the U.S. to counter the Islamic State.

  • These troops are aligned with the Kurdistan Workers' Party insurgency that Turkey and its allies — including the U.S. — consider a terrorist group.
  • They aspire to create a Kurdish state, which would be unacceptable to Turkey as well as the parties to the Syrian conflict.

Between the lines: The population of more than 3.6 million Syria refugees hosted in Turkey — once embraced as "guests" by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party — have been tossed under the bus as the party's popular support has eroded.

  • Human rights groups have alleged forced deportations from Istanbul and reported on plans to relocate nearly 700,000 refugees into Turkish-controlled areas in Syria's north.
  • Those moves would form a demographic buffer between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, while appealing to widespread anti-refugee and anti-Kurdish sentiment.

What to watch: Without restraint by Turkey and long-term military assurances by the U.S., the SDF could be pushed to join the Russia-Syria-Iran axis or to seek reintegration with Syria, perhaps with a degree of Kurdish autonomy.

  • While Turkey’s brinkmanship may have paid off in securing U.S. support to smooth over tensions, northern Syria will continue to challenge a more circumscribed U.S. Middle East policy.

Adham Sahloul is a foreign policy analyst and former researcher at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.