Several great question remain about President Donald Trumps possible policy for safe zones in Syria, but any plan will change the dynamics of the conflict and risks creating deeper divisions in the countrys political and social scenery .
BEIRUT When Hillary Clinton advocated a no-fly zone and safe areas as part of her Syria policy, the then presidential nominee Donald Trump replied, in his typically dramatic rhetoric, that her strategy would end up in World War Three. But President Trump has recently said that he would absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people, creating significant questions about how his plans would differ from past proposals.
Safe zones were included in last months draft executive order, Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals, which also outlined the suspension of the Syrian refugee resettlement program in the U.S. The draft stated that the U.S. secretaries of state and defense would have 90 days to render a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region.
Juxtaposing the two policies suggests that safe zones were more about maintaining refugees out of the U.S. than shielding them from violence. And although the safe zone proposal was fallen from the final version of the order, signed on January 27, analysts say it is still a consolation prize for the restrictive visa policies. For Trump this is about justifying not allowing Syrians into the U.S., said Nasser Weddady, a Middle East and North Africa consultant who grew up in Syria. Although the mention[ of safe zones] was removed, it was an interesting Freudian slip and insight into the Trump administrations Syria thinking.
Indeed, two days later, Trump discussed the safe zones notion with Saudi Arabias King Salman bin Abdul Aziz. The two leaders agreed to support safe zones as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts, the White House said in a statement.
But Washington has given little additional information. Several great question remain about Trumps plan, including where the safe zone would be located, where the funding would come from, who would maintain and secure the area and how Syrians would be transferred. In addition to the logistics, it is still unclear if the plan aims to create a strictly humanitarian shelter or if it is a strategic part of an attempt to end the Syrian conflict by brokering an agreement between the U.S., the Syrian government and its allies.
In principle, a safe zone could work to defend civilians, said Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the London-based Henry Jackson Society think-tank. The devil is in the details, though. What is its purpose? Does the regime alliance sign off on it? In practise, a safe zone could mitigate casualties in the short term and increase them over the long term or vice versa.
The Politics of Geography
There are multiple risks with a poorly thought-out strategy. They include aggravating parties such as Russia and Turkey, and extortionate costs.
The most likely locating for any safe zone is in northern Syria, in territory currently controlled by the Kurdish YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish Arab coalition which the U.S. backed under Obamas administration, according to Weddady.
This could cause tension with Turkey. Ankara have all along advocated a safe zone in northern Syria. But increasing U.S. cooperation with Kurdish forces to implement it would likely annoy them and force Washington to find a way to mollify them.
If the U.S. decided to base a safe zone next to the area cleared by Turkeys Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Aleppo province, and the region was strictly a humanitarian haven, Syrian chairwoman Bashar al-Assad and his allies might smile on the American policy, as it would supplement their strategy of evicting hostile populations mostly Sunni until they are down to a manageable level, and then importing loyalist populations, usually Shiite militiamen controlled by Iran and their families, to tilt the demographics even further, Orton said.
On the other hand, acting without the approval of Damascus, Tehran and Moscow would increase the risk of military confrontation between the U.S.and Russia in the air or on the ground. In this case, an expensive no-fly zone would be essential to protect any safe haven, which would mean bringing in an aircraft to shoot down Russian or Syrian aircrafts that violate the region. More troops U.S. or U.S.-backed would also be needed to secure the ground limits; previous estimates operate between 15, 000 and 30,000, with overall operating costs of up to $ 1 billion a month.
The Russia Factor
President Barack Obama resisted a commitment to creating safe havens, given the estimates of enormous financial and military investment. While the costs have not lessened, the main contrast in Trumps version of safe zones is his willingness to cooperate with the Kremlin in Syria.
The U.S. would not be able to enforce a safe zone in Syria with backing from the U.N. Security Council without Russian approval. In practical terms, all this hinges on what sort of grand bargain the Trump administration and Putin can strike together, understanding the complication of the relationship between the two, said Weddady.
Whats more, Trump has said that he hopes to improve Washingtons relationship with Moscow so that the two countries can go out together and knock the hell out of ISIS. In any is being dealt with Russia, the U.S. is likely to prioritize the fight against ISIS and minimise the number of ground troops needed to protect a safe zone rather than putting the Syrian humpty dumpty back together, Weddady said.
Striking a deal with Russia, a tacit ally of Iran in Syria, to keep American human and military costs down seems counterintuitive to Trumps promise that he will get the Gulf states to give us lots of money, and well build and help build safe zones in Syria. But the Gulf states cooperation is likely, given that they are more interested in changing the regional power balance with Iran than continuing to prop up a insurrection in northern Syria. They will attain compromises on this, which was eventually turn them and attain them pliable to Russian and American designs, said Weddady.
Populating the Safe Zones
However the plan evolves, U.S.-implemented safe zones hazard further demarcating Syrias political and social geography. Decisions would likely be made by all the major players in Syria except Syrians themselves.
The logistics of moving people into possible safe zones has not yet been addressed. Since the conflict began in 2011, roughly 6. 3 million people have been internally displaced within Syria, more than one-third of whom going to the governorates of Aleppo and Rural Damascus.
Tensions between ethnic, religious and social groups in Syria may curtail access to a supposed haven. Kurdish Syrians may fear being forced to Turkish and Arab Syrian-controlled territory, for anxiety of ill-treatment. Equally, Arab Syrians may fear being moved into Kurdish areas. Jeopardized populations have fled into Islamic State areas before now for example, around Shadadi rather than fall under[ Kurdish] PYD rule, Orton pointed out.
Any plan that would get Assads approval is likely to cause farther divisions. Though after the fall of eastern Aleppo in December, rebels in the north have a diminish number of options, and are increasingly divided, many civilians watch little chance of peace while a Russia-backed Assad regime remains.
Only a real and lasting peace will create the conditions where the displaced are able to return home and live in safety, as is their right, said Leila al-Shami, the British-Syrian co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. Many refugees will never return so long as the Assad regime remains in place, for anxiety of retribution.
After six years of conflict any plan that ensured an end to living beneath airstrikes would be welcomed. But some Syrians watch the possibility of a U.S.safe zone as another way for a foreign power to occupy and farther divide their country.
Safe areas would devote us the chance to live without aircraft overhead, said Samer Daabol, a Syrian media activist in Idlib province. But the important point and the greatest anxiety is whether this is the start of divisions. We do not favor temporary solutions: We need to solve the main cause of their own problems, which would be to rid the people of Bashar al-Assad.