BEIRUT – U.S. president Donald Trump’s announcement that he wants to build “big beautiful safe zones” in Syria to “give these people a chance” prompted a handful of similar calls from world leaders invested in the Syrian conflict.
So far, there haven’t been any concrete plans to build safe zones inside the war-torn country, but the rhetoric is being used as a way for foreign powers to return Syrian refugees under the guise of alleviating their humanitarian concerns.
Syria Deeply spoke with Christopher Kozak, a Syrian analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank, about the challenges facing any possible U.S. plan for a safe zone in Syria, particularly in a proposal that would see the U.S. partnering with Turkey, and how a safe zone could be just one part of a larger American strategy to end the war.
Syria Deeply: The U.S. had resisted creating any kind of safe zone in Syria in the past, what’s changed now that has made the new administration reconsider?
Christopher Kozak: I wouldn’t say that anything has changed on the ground that’s allowing them to reconsider. Safe zones are very much a 2012, 2013 solution, that doesn’t quite match the 2017 reality on the ground in Syria. The safe zone is a great messaging tool on paper. It looks great; it allows the world to see that you’re doing something, taking that stand. It is not an end in itself, but a means of securing leverage on the ground. It allows you to potentially alleviate at least part of the humanitarian situation, but it does not bring the war any closer to a resolution.
Part of what we’re seeing now is the natural inclination of a new administration that wants to cut its teeth on being proactive and different than the past administration by reaching for this tool and toolbox, which has always been the shiniest one on the pile. Unfortunately, I don’t think that it is that useful of a tool.
Syria Deeply: Why wouldn’t it bring the war any closer to an end now, as opposed to in 2013 when even activists advocated so strongly for it?
Kozak: I think that how facts on the ground have changed really precludes a lot of potential safe zones as viable options, particularly in northern Syria. Now that the U.S. and Russia would go toe to toe in a no-fly zone, there comes a more fundamental question of who keeps the safe zone actually safe on the ground. Who is the group that is going to enforce the safe zone, not only from an attack from the outside, but from infiltration of Salafi jihadist groups? There is still no good answer and, in fact, as we’ve seen the opposition continued to shift in northern Syria, following the fall of Aleppo city, it’s one that is becoming increasingly difficult to answer.
Syria Deeply: Do we have any indication of what those costs for the U.S. might be to create and protect these zones?
Kozak: The most realistic scenario here, is that our allies, in the form of Turkey, will try to minimize the cost by offering themselves as the ground partner, in exchange for U.S. air support. Turkey already has troops on the ground. Turkey officials have stated that one of their goals is to build a safe zone stretching from Azaz to Jarabulus. By large, that’s what they’ve accomplished. They’re setting up infrastructure in Jarabulus, electricity, water. They’re talking about refugee resettlement. The most realistic option is that Turkey will offer the administration a safe zone on a silver platter, and say, “Back our projects and we will do the securing on the ground.” Then all the U.S. has to do is send in a deterrent package, send in additional aircraft, perhaps anti air missile systems, to protect this zone from outside interference.
Accepting this Turkish offer, because it’s the easy thing to do, runs the risk of advancing Turkey’s goals in the region. The Turkish agenda in Syria does not necessarily match the U.S. agenda in Syria; in fact, it’s often diverged quite significantly. One of the ways that has happened is support for Salafi jihadist groups, particularly Ahrar al-Sham, which does have a presence in northern Aleppo, is connected to the al-Qaida network and widely pose a long term threat. It also puts the U.S. into direct opposition with the faction that has been our greatest partner on the ground, the Kurdish YPG.
Syria Deeply: The current administration seems to be focused solely on defeating ISIS, rather than al-Qaida though.
Kozak: Even if the new administration does not have al-Qaida on its radar, it should, as al-Qaida is gaining strength in Idlib province as we speak. One of the pressure points that the new administration may find is that Russia is going to be pushing very hard for the U.S. to open the aperture to target more than just ISIS, but to really expand and target al-Qaida. I think that there are going to be increasing polls, both within and outside of the U.S. to address al-Qaida as much, if not more, of a dangerous problem than ISIS.
Syria Deeply: Will the safe zones have any effect on the U.S. fight against ISIS?
Kozak: A safe zone could serve as a launching pad for further operations against ISIS, but the problem is going to be the character of the partner force on the ground. This has been something that the U.S. has been dancing around for the entire course of its involvement in the war. Attempting to find acceptable partner forces on the ground in order to act against ISIS. Currently the safe zones that are offered up in northern Syria are not divorced entirely enough from Salafi jihadist groups to present a viable or acceptable partner on the ground that can help secure eastern Syria and parts of northern Syria from ISIS without opening those regions to further infiltration in the future.
That being said, I think a safe zone in the south in Daraa Province is still entirely viable. There is an ISIS and al-Qaida presence in the south, but it’s much less significant than in the north. The southern front, the Free Syrian Army and affiliated groups largely remain the dominant player, both in governance and in military strength.There would be demands from the regime for some other force to come in and secure the zone, or at least provide guarantees that FSA groups won’t use the zone to regroup and stage attacks.
The question becomes what is the end goal of creating a safe zone beyond just a humanitarian concern, which in of itself is a good thing, but you’re looking at a long commitment near Damascus that will likely make a lot of people within the regime and Russia very nervous without some process towards an endgame that results in a stable Syria.
Syria Deeply: Right, because for this to work, you need the regime and Russia’s guarantee that there will be no airstrikes, because then the safe zone becomes a no fly zone, which be more expensive.
Kozak: I don’t want to create the impression that the U.S. would not impose a no fly zone without the approval of Russia. Russia has created big waves with a smaller rock. The U.S. could easily outmuscle that in a show of force.That of course requires rolling the dice. Will Russia challenge the U.S. and shoot an American jet out in the sky? In which case, the first thing that happens is that Russia will lose everything that it holds inside of Syria.
That leads down the path of escalation, but that’s a risk calculation of whether Putin really would enter a war over Syria or is that the message that he’s used to help paralyze U.S. action for over a year now. I think that it’s within our means to press Russia to accept a no fly zone but that comes with a tradeoff.
Syria Deeply: Some people are looking at this as a U.S. incursion into the war. Is that part of any possible long-term strategy we might see? What long term strategy could safe zones be a part of?
Kozak: From the U.S. strategic perspective, the war needs to end in a way that is long term and durable, where Syria is not a failed state or constant conflict that provides safe haven for ISIS, for al-Qaida or some new spinoff of the two. That really is the fundamental U.S. question inside of Syria.
The only way the conflict in Syria ends in ISW’s estimation is through the empowerment and creation of an alternative Sunni polity that is not corrupted by Salafi jihadist infiltration, that can come to terms equally with the regime to force an end to the war. If a safe zone empowers either the southern front, or another group that is acceptable to the U.S., then it feeds into that larger strategic outlook. If it doesn’t, then it’s a secondary line of effort that doesn’t have a link to a coherent strategy.
Syria Deeply: Is there a realistic possibility that the safe zone is able to empower such a group? You said earlier that, in 2017 Syria, a safe zone isn’t going to bring an end to the conflict.
Kozak: The problem that the U.S. faces is that there is not really a viable partner on the ground at the moment. If the U.S. wants to lean in and take a proactive role, it should be working towards building this partner. I think the areas where building this partner is possible and viable are areas that coalition forces have recaptured from ISIS in eastern Syria. Where they can build something that is far enough away from the regime and Iran that they’re not immediately interested in challenging and that doesn’t impinge on their strategic concerns. Then it can be reintroduced into the conflict once it’s been strengthened.
We have U.S. military forces on the ground in northern Syria. The primary problem there is that they work very closely with the YPG and have allowed the Arab component that we’re training to become very dependent on the YPG. I would advocate for a strategy that helps the Arab component of the Syrian Democratic Forces become independent and win the support of opposition groups in other parts of the country.
But I acknowledge that for now this group does not exist and it will require a significant U.S. investment to get off the ground. But without it, then what we’re really watching in northern Syria is the slow creep of the opposition closer and closer to Salafi Jihadist groups. That doesn’t mean that all opposition groups there are in al-Qaida or al-Qaida affiliates, but it means that the spectrum is slowly shifting in the absence of any outside realistic alternative.
Syria Deeply: Some jihadist groups have said they absolutely won’t accept any U.S. safe zone. But if Turkey’s goals are different than the U.S. aims, would the U.S. send its own ground force into Syria to create and maintain the safe zones?
Kozak: I think it’s something that’s on the table. We’ve seen reports of the U.S. considering sending a brigade or more of forces. Turkey for a long time has empowered these groups that are now the ones gobbling up the remaining acceptable opposition bastions. It’s not an unrealistic fear that the same would happen in any safe zone where Turkey is allowed to be the primary force on the ground. As I said, the question of infiltration is going to be one that keeps people up at night.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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