Turkey and the United States (US) have announced that they had reached an agreement on forming a joint operation center in Turkey to coordinate and manage a planned safe zone in northern Syria, the Reuters news agency reported on Wednesday.
The announcement came in two separate statements issued by Turkey’s defense ministry and the US Embassy in Ankara.
During three-day bilateral talks between US and Turkish military officials, the formation of the safe zone in northern Syria was discussed, with both sides agreeing to establish a joint operation center in Turkey.
Just before the negotiations, Turkey had intensified military deployment on its southern border for a potential incursion into northern Syria, aimed at clearing the area south of its border of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The YPG, which forms the central command structure of a multi-ethnic group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is a key player in the US-led international coalition’s fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Ankara deems the YPG a terrorist organization due to its affiliation with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an insurgent group that has waged a decades-long fight in Turkey for Kurdish self-rule.
Seemingly, both parties have not reached an agreement on two main topics of how far the zone should extend into Syria, and who would lead in patrolling the area.
They, however, have agreed on the target that the safe zone should be a peace corridor for Syrians, who have been displaced by war, to be returned to their home country.
The two NATO allies also concluded a deal on the “rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns.”
On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that progress has been achieved in a “really positive” direction.
The process towards creating the safe zone would be initiated with the operation center being formed, Erdogan said.
“What really mattered here was the issue of this step being taken on the east of the Euphrates, and this is now being realised together with the Americans,” the president said.
For now, the talks appear to reduce the prospects of a military operation by Turkish forces.
However, Aaron Stein, the Director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, interpreted the two countries’ consensus to create a joint operation center as a play for time as no concrete agreements had been reached.
He said the latest announcements were aimed at avoiding accidental US casualties in the event of a later Turkish attack on the YPG, as the US has troops in the region.
On June 4 last year, after Trump abruptly announced his intention to withdraw US forces from Syria, the two sides reached an agreement on a roadmap for the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij, east of the Euphrates River and the formation of a local civil administration.
Later, the US administration changed the course of its withdrawal plans after facing pressure from its European allies. A significant legion of US forces, along with European troops will lead the mission for the formation of a safe zone.
ISIS aims to create an Islamic state, known as a caliphate, across Iraq and Syria. Redrawing the map of the Middle East, ISIS controlled more than 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq in 2014, spreading from the Mediterranean coast to the south of Baghdad. US-backed coalition forces have been notably successful in taking back territory since 2017.