BEIRUT – When Hillary Clinton advocated a no-fly zone and safe areas as part of her Syria policy, the then presidential candidate 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,” raising significant questions about how his plans would differ from past proposals.
Safe zones were included in last month’s 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 produce “a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region.”
Juxtaposing the two policies suggests that safe zones were more about keeping refugees out of the U.S. than shielding them from violence. And although the safe zone proposal was dropped 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 administration’s Syria thinking.”
Indeed, two days later, Trump discussed the safe zones idea with Saudi Arabia’s 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 big questions remain about Trump’s 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 purely 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 coalition sign off on it? In practice, a safe zone could lessen 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 location 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 Obama’s administration, according to Weddady.
This could cause tension with Turkey. Ankara has long advocated a safe zone in northern Syria. But increasing U.S. cooperation with Kurdish forces to implement it would likely irritate them and force Washington to find a way to appease them.
If the U.S. decided to base a safe zone next to the area cleared by Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Aleppo province, and the area was strictly a humanitarian haven, Syrian president 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 planes that breach the area. More troops – U.S. or U.S.-backed – would also be needed to secure the ground limits; previous estimates run between 15,000 and 30,000, with overall running 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 decreased, the main contrast in Trump’s 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.
What’s more, Trump has said that he hopes to improve Washington’s relationship with Moscow so that the two countries can “go out together and knock the hell out of ISIS.” In any deal with Russia, the U.S. is likely to prioritize the fight against ISIS and minimizing 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 Trump’s promise that he “will get the Gulf states to give us lots of money, and we’ll build and help build safe zones in Syria.” But the Gulf states’ cooperation is likely, given that they are more interested in shifting the regional power balance with Iran than continuing to prop up a rebellion in northern Syria. “They will make compromises on this, which will ultimately turn them and make them pliable to Russian and American designs,” said Weddady.
Populating the Safe Zones
However the plan evolves, U.S.-implemented safe zones risk further demarcating Syria’s 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 fear of ill-treatment. Equally, Arab Syrians may fear being moved into Kurdish areas. “Endangered 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 Assad’s approval is likely to cause further divisions. Though after the fall of eastern Aleppo in December, rebels in the north have a diminishing number of options, and are increasingly divided, many civilians see 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 fear of retribution.”
After six years of conflict any plan that ensured an end to living beneath airstrikes would be welcomed. But some Syrians see the possibility of a U.S. safe zone as another way for a foreign power to occupy and further divide their country.
“Safe areas would give 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 fear – is whether this is the start of divisions. We do not favor temporary solutions: We need to solve the main cause of the problem, which would be to rid the people of Bashar al-Assad.”