Hold Erdogan to His Word on Syria’s Kurds

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s tweeted threat to “devastate Turkey economically” if any harm comes to Syria’s Kurds after the withdrawal of American troops seems to have had a chastening effect on Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader, insisting that his priority is to fight the Islamic State, has agreed to a 20-mile “safe zone” along his country’s border with the Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria.

This is a good idea that the U.S. should move quickly to clarify in writing.

The Kurdish militias have been stalwart U.S. allies in Syria, and have paid an enormous cost in blood in the fight against the Islamic State. Erdogan has branded them proxies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a terrorist group, and Turkish aggression has extended to Kurdish civilians. Last March, the Turkish military and allied Syrian rebels took over the city of Afrin and subjected the city’s Kurds to a reign of fear.

No such behavior can be tolerated in a “safe zone.” Erdogan should warrant that the Kurdish civilian population is neither harassed nor molested by Turkish forces or their proxies. Turkish soldiers — and Kurdish militias, too — should keep their distance from civilian areas.

The U.S. should also insist that Turkey forswear any permanent territorial claims on land in the safe zone that is inside internationally recognized Syrian borders. It should be understood that these lands will return to the control of Damascus at the end of the civil war, whenever that comes. In these areas, Turkey should not build any permanent structures, nor destroy such as exist. 

And of course, both sides must also agree to independent monitoring and mediation of disputes.

Relations between Washington and Ankara are currently very contentious. The creation of a truly safe “safe zone” for Kurds in northern Syria could help diminish the tension. The U.S. should press for a formal agreement that holds Erdogan to his word.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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