US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that no US troops will take part in enforcing the so-called “safe zone” in northern Syria and the United States “is continuing our deliberate withdrawal from northeastern Syria”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier on Friday said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria, insisting that a planned safe zone will extend much further than US officials said was covered under a fragile ceasefire deal.
The truce, announced by US Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Erdogan, sets out a five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pull out of the Turkish safe zone.
The deal was aimed at easing a crisis that saw President Donald Trump order a hasty and unexpected US retreat, which his critics said amounted to abandoning loyal Kurdish allies that fought for years alongside US troops against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
In contrast with Pence’s description of a limited safe zone, the agreement would effectively create a zone of control patrolled by the Turkish military that Ankara wants to stretch for the entire border from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, though the agreement did not define the extent of the zone. Turkish forces currently control about a quarter of that length, captured in the past nine days.
The rest is held by the Kurdish-led forces or by the Syrian government military, backed by Russia, which the Kurds invited to move in to shield them from the Turks. None of those parties has much reason to let Turkish forces into the areas.
“No US ground forces will participate in the enforcement of the safe zone, however, we will remain in communication with both Turkey and the SDF,” Esper told reporters on Friday.