Playing With Fire
The Danger of Syrian Safe Zones

A developing proposal by President Trump to create humanitarian “safe zones” for Syrian refugees has sounded alarm bells from the Pentagon to the Kremlin, stoking fears of an expanded U.S. military commitment in Syria. Reuters:

Trump said on Wednesday he “will absolutely do safe zones in Syria” for refugees fleeing violence. According to a document seen by Reuters, he is expected in the coming days to order the Pentagon and the State Department to draft a plan to create such zones in Syria and nearby nations.

The document did not spell out what would make a safe zone “safe” and whether it would protect refugees only from threats on the ground – such as jihadist fighters – or whether Trump envisions a no-fly zone policed by America and its allies.

If it is a no-fly zone, without negotiating some agreement with Russia Trump would have to decide whether to give the U.S. military the authority to shoot down Syrian or Russian aircraft if they posed a threat to people in that zone, which his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, refused to do.

“This essentially boils down to a willingness to go to war to protect refugees,” said Jim Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington, noting Russia’s advanced air defenses.

Officials at the Pentagon appeared to be caught off-guard by the draft document, denying a formal policy change and stating that General Mattis had not been given firm instructions by the White House. Privately, several defense officials cast serious doubts on the proposal’s viability, while retired General Barry McCaffrey predicted “zero support” within the Pentagon. Moscow, for its part, said it had not been consulted on the proposal and warned that it could exacerbate the situation in Syria.

Both the Kremlin and Pentagon are entirely justified in their concerns. But the fault for this wrongheaded idea is not Trump’s alone: the idea of Syrian “safe zones” gained traction on the campaign trail thanks to support from Hillary Clinton and a majority of Republican candidates, drawing little skepticism from the press at the time. The chorus of condemnation now greeting Trump’s proposal is a reminder of what happens when attractive campaign sound bites collide with reality.

The dangers of such a policy are clear. For one, the imposition of a no-fly zone in a theatre frequented by Russian and Syrian aircraft clearly raises the risk of a deadly confrontation. And even if Trump could get Russia on board, refugees would be loath to trust assurances from Moscow after its long history of violating ceasefires and targeting civilians.

The Defense Department, meanwhile, has already been down this road under President Obama, who rejected a safe zone near the Turkish border after the Pentagon estimated that it would require 30,000 U.S. troops on the ground. If anything, those estimates are conservative; an expanded safe zone could easily demand a more extensive troop commitment while gobbling up defense dollars with no end in sight.

It may be that Trump failed to speak with his defense team before advocating the policy; the mixed messages coming from the Pentagon and White House suggest that may be the case. If so, Trump’s meeting with General Mattis today could be a chance to smooth the waters. Given the high stakes involved, let’s hope the President can be persuaded to walk back this particular campaign pledge.

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