BEIRUT – Many questions must be answered before the U.S. can propose a viable safe zone plan for Syria – a move that President Donald Trump has put “at the top of [his] foreign policy agenda.”
However, to create safe zones that actually work, Nawar Oliver, a military researcher, analyst and mapper at the Istanbul-based Omran Center, told Syria Deeply that “you need a huge budget. You need to figure out what kind of safe zone.” He continued: “Is it going to be on the ground? Will it have a no-fly zone? If it’s the latter, then you need a military base.”
The U.S. already has small units on the ground in northern Syria and, for years, has had planes targeting the so-called Islamic State group, and these operations may soon increase. At Trump’s request, the Pentagon on Monday submitted the “preliminary framework” to the president to intensify the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which includes options for sending additional troops.
Speaking at a press conference in Beirut that same day, U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Joseph Votel said safe zones are “obviously a viable concept” for Syria, particularly in “areas that have already been secured” and where the U.S. has ongoing “humanitarian and stabilization activities” – in short, areas cleared of ISIS. Votel added that there is “a lot of work left to be done” to prepare.
Speaking to Syria Deeply last week, Oliver said the biggest issues facing plans for safe zones in Syria are the threat of ISIS or other jihadist attacks, and the risk of changing the narrative of the conflict by inadvertently legitimizing the Syrian government.
Syria Deeply: What are the logistical challenges facing possible U.S. plans for a safe zone in Syria?
Nawar Oliver: Everything is complicated. Tweeting about it and talking about it to the press is so easy. But it’s not easy, the [President Barack] Obama administration knew that. It’s also a bit late. During Obama’s administration, there was a need for [safe zones], because opposition territory was larger and subject to heavy air raids. But now, we have a de facto control area for Turkey and another for Kurds, in the north. In the south, we have almost de facto controlled area by the Southern Front [rebel group].
Saudi may be interested to fund [a safe zone]. It could be a huge opportunity for Saudi Arabia to become a major player in Syria again. Saudi Arabia made some very bad decisions over the past years and has been excluded from big decisions.
These are the blueprints, but there is another problem. You have a large number of factions in Syria that no one controls and they have their own mind. Who would control them? Who will prevent them from making this area a temporary camp? Who will prevent Shiite militia from attacking this area? Will Russia be able to put pressure on the Iran-backed militias?
Syria Deeply: To answer all those questions, who should the U.S. come to agreements with?
Oliver: I don’t think the plan will go through the United Nations Security Council, because of a possible Russian veto. It will be through international agreements, and the U.S. won’t do it without consulting and reaching agreements with Russia.
Russia might also consider [the safe zones] as a way to boost the cease-fire agreement that it worked on with Turkey in the Astana talks. This might be a discussion point between Russia and the U.S.
The most reasonable option for Trump is in northern Syria. Turkey is complicated there, because their major issue is not only with ISIS, but with the Kurds. Whenever Turkey used to talk about a safe zone, they excluded the Kurdish areas. That was a major problem between them and the Obama administration. First, Trump will need to have some kind of deal with Turkey about the YPG in Afrin [a district in northern Syria]. Turkey doesn’t want them there.
Syria Deeply: Should the U.S. clear it with the Syrian regime? Without their approval, what is to stop the regime from bombing the safe zone?
Oliver: The U.S. can discuss this with Russia. Russia will influence the regime, and there won’t be any problem. Iran might cause a problem, and I think Trump wants this.
If Trump uses the zone in northern Syria, the large number of Iranian militia won’t be a problem, because they operate far from this area. But it’s all connected. If Trump is going to use Saudi Arabia’s funding, Riyadh might say, “I don’t want that many Iranian [militias] near me.” Saudi is very scared of what’s happening around their border, where there are about 60 to 65 Shiite factions reporting to Iran, Hezbollah or to local Shiite figures in Syria. That’s dangerous for Saudi.
Trump might use this to put some pressure on Iran. He’s already Tweeting about it. If someone puts pressure on Iran, Russia would be happy. Iran has a big influence now in Damascus and that’s not making anyone happy.
Syria Deeply: So funding and location are only a small portion of the challenges facing potential safe zones. How does the fragmentation of the opposition play into this?
Oliver: When Turkey called for a safe zone in northern Syria in 2015, two factions issued official statements. Ahrar al-Sham said that they would support it, but Jabhat al-Nusra [now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS)] said they would consider it a threat, which means they would target it. Now, all jihadist groups are against [the safe zones], but not all Islamic groups like Ahrar al-Sham [are].
Turkey can assure that there won’t be any problem with factions that report to Ankara. Three factions in [the Turkey-backed rebel group] al-Furat Shield told me that “anything related to Turkey’s safety, we will do it.”
There are small factions who are afraid to announce their support to such a zone, because they would be attacked in a second. They don’t have that much power to defend themselves, so they will keep it quiet.
In Idlib, anyone who has a small jihadist thought in his brain is totally against it. Someone [in Idlib] told me that jihadist factions are ready to declare war on anyone who creates or supports [safe zones]. It’s already happening. Whoever gets support from the U.S., or even now from Turkey, has a big target on his back.
Still, there are always ways to weaken their threats. For example, the number of coalition raids on specific figures in JFS recently increased. Also, another faction was created last year that is 100 percent an American project, the Free Idlib Army. They haven’t participated in battles yet, but they’re ready, they have huge numbers, and even JFS would think twice before attacking them.
Idlib will cause a problem for itself; the situation might explode any second. The factions won’t have time to cause problems elsewhere.
Syria Deeply: Do jihadist factions see the safe zone as a U.S. ground incursion into Syria?
Oliver: From the jihadist perspective, it would be like the Kufar [infidels] are protecting the area. For ISIS, these areas just give them something else to do. They consider themselves a state between Iraq and Syria. It’s a big state. They believe: “We are in a big war. I don’t care if I’m losing in al-Bab, I will win in somewhere else. I don’t care if I’m losing in Mosu; I will win in Deir Ezzor. I still have my state.”
Syria Deeply: What would be the biggest risks for civilians?
Oliver: The big threat is ISIS. ISIS is still in these areas and has sleeper cells all over Syria. It won’t be safe, and you need something to protect from this. All displaced Syrians know this. How will you convince people to go back to an unstable area?
We’ve seen in other examples such as Iraq and Bosnia that the U.S. will start a zone, but at a certain point they want to leave. When they leave, the conflict becomes even more dangerous. Many believe that without the right atmosphere, this zone will raise new generations of militias and conflict. Whoever will fund and be responsible for this zone needs to monitor the atmosphere and activities inside. In almost all past safe zones, insurgents or militias and other groups used them as a base to regroup, to start new plans, pick a new target and then hit. As of now, the situation in Syria and in the north is not stable. You have different parties fighting the same party, ISIS, but also fighting each other. This insecurity makes people wary of returning.
Syria Deeply: What lasting effects might safe zones have on the future of Syria and the conflict?
Oliver: This area might increase the demographic changes in Syria. There is a huge political opposition that is afraid of the concept of dividing Syria or changing the original roots of specific areas. There is something else. Someone from [rebel group] Jaish al-Islam told me they are afraid these areas will extend the regime’s life. The main goal of rebel leaders in Syria is still to get to get rid of the regime. It’s a solvable problem, but we might witness a lot more factions going to JFS or even to ISIS.
Syria Deeply: Because getting the regime’s or Russia’s permission for the safe zones would, in a way, legitimize the Syrian government?
Oliver: Exactly. You can do a safe zone, but you will have major problems with this electric atmosphere around it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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