Northern Syria: How stable is the cease-fire? | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 18.10.2019

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Middle East

Northern Syria: How stable is the cease-fire?

Washington and Ankara have agreed to a cease-fire in northern Syria, but the deal leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Experts say these will present hurdles on the way to establishing a safe zone.

US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to a five-day cease-fire in northern Syria when they met in Ankara on Thursday, which went into effect at 10:00 p.m. local time that evening. The deal was preceded by a massive Turkish military operation. Now, Syrian Kurds from the People's Protection Units (YPG) are to withdraw from the so-called safe zone that is to be established along the Syrian-Turkish border. The Turkish president envisions a zone that will stretch 32 kilometers (20 miles) inland along the 444-kilometer-long border. 

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Refugees skeptical about safety of Syria 'safe zone'

Yet, the terminology used in the agreement is indicative of the fragility of the 13-article contract: There is no mention of a true cease-fire, but rather, of a "pause." Ankara has demanded that the safe zone be effectively established before it will commit to fully ending military operations.

The practical establishment of the safe zone, however, depends on a number of factors. That, in turn, has led to skepticism among experts. "There was a previous agreement for establishing a safe zone, but the Americans didn't uphold the deal. And that is what prompted the military operation," says Syria expert Oytun Orhan from the ORSAM Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "Now the situation has changed. But what will it look like in five days? That is hard to say."

Indeed, already on Friday morning, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led militia alliance said the border town of Ras al-Ayn remained besieged and the area was being attacked by Turkey and its allied rebel forces.

"Despite the agreement to halt the fighting, [Turkish] air and artillery attacks continue to target the positions of fighters [and] civilian settlements," Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Mustafa Bali said.

Read more: Why Turkey wants a military assault on Syrian Kurds

Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters in Kobane

Experts are doubtful as to whether Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) will really pull back as stipulated

Does disarmament have a chance?

The agreement signed in Ankara also calls for Kurdish YPG militias to lay down their arms, and for these to be collected. Moreover, Kurdish positions and fortifications are also to be demolished, though it is unclear just who will be responsible for doing so. Turkish authorities say the US is responsible, but experts point to the fact that the US is currently occupied with the logistics of withdrawing personnel from the area. "American soldiers have already withdrawn from the area east of the Euphrates. Therefore it is not realistic to believe they will deal with disarming YPG militia groups in northern Syria," says security expert Metin Gurcan.

The most important aspect of the agreement is the establishment of a safe zone. Pence confirmed that the area would be 20 miles deep, yet that part of the agreement was not committed to paper. Turkish diplomats say the agreement was made verbally. Experts claim ambiguities arising from that spoken agreement could lead to serious problems down the road. "There was a similar agreement in August 2019. At the time, the safe zone was supposed to cover the entire length of the Syrian border. But the exact dimensions of the new safe zone appear nowhere in the agreement text," says Moscow-based political scientist Kerim Has.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (r.) and Vladimir Putin in Ankara

Putin wants to have his say in what happens in Syria — and will have a chance on October 22 in Sochi

The Sochi factor

The deal between Ankara and Washington is being hailed as a diplomatic success for temporarily halting the bloodshed. Both sides can look to the world a lay claim to it. But Russian President Vladimir Putin also plays a role in Syria, since his country protects Syrian President Bashar Assad. When Putin and Erdogan meet in the Russian city of Sochi on October 22, Ankara will seek to come to an agreement with Moscow regarding northern Syria.

Read more: Trump's tricky Syria 'gift' to Putin

Thus far, Putin has refused to give his blessing to Ankara's safe zone. In Sochi, the Russians will be more interested in one of their own priorities: the Adana agreement. The 1998 accord regulates the prohibition of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Syria, and was used by Ankara as justification for Operation Peace Spring, as its October 9 offensive has been named.

The Adana accord allows Turkey to enter 15 kilometers into Syria in order to stamp out "terrorist activities." The problem arises from the fact that the safe zone proposed by Erdogan extends another 15 kilometers into Syrian territory. That could result in direct Turkish conflict with Syrian government forces. And a confrontation with Damascus could quickly drag Russia into a bloody conflict — a nightmare scenario for all parties involved.

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