A U.S. delegation arrived in Turkey on Monday, August 12 to begin working with Ankara on creating a buffer zone in northern Syria, under a plan strongly rejected by Damascus.
Turkish and U.S. officials struck a deal last week to establish the safe zone to manage tensions between Turkey and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in war-torn Syria.
But Damascus has accused Ankara and Washington of violating its sovereignty with the “expansionist” and “aggressive” project.
Turkey’s defense ministry said that six U.S. officials arrived in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa on Monday to start setting up a joint operations center, which is to open “in the coming days.”
No details have been provided on the size or timetable for the safe zone, but the deal appears to have provided some breathing room after Turkey had threatened an imminent attack on the predominately-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which controls a large swathe of northern Syria.
The YPG has been the main U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, but Ankara brands them “terrorists,” viewing them as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for 35 years.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last week that the U.S. intends to “prevent” any unilateral Turkish incursion and would find such action “unacceptable,” but did not explicitly say the U.S. intends to defend the SDF.
Turkey has called for the safe zone to be 30 km (18 miles) wide – a demand reiterated by Defence Minister Hulusi Akar on Monday.
“We have said on every occasion that we need a width of 30 to 40 kilometers,” Akar told state-run TRT television.
The SDF has agreed to a buffer zone, but have requested it to be five kilometers wide, a proposal rejected by Turkey.
While fighting ISIS, the Kurds have taken advantage of the Syrian war to set up an autonomous region in the northeast.
But as the fight against ISIS winds down in the region, the prospect of a U.S. military withdrawal has stoked Kurdish fears of a long threatened Turkish attack.
Turkey has already carried out two cross-border offensives into Syria in 2016 and 2018, the second of which saw it and allied Syrian rebels overrun the Kurdish enclave of Efrin in the northwest.
With reporting from AFP