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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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  • CaliforniaStark

    Think Trump’s comment is being taken out of context. However, it is interesting that after many articles on this blog by WRM critical of the U.S. for NOT getting involved more in Syria, there is now concern over Trump expressing an interest in doing so. Personally do not want to see any U.S. troops in Syria.

    • Spencer

      I’d say WRM was speaking in a very different context. I think at this point he’d say that unless we’re willing to kill Russians, it’s too late to get involved.

  • Pait

    An argument is weakened significantly when it blames the errors of the president on the opposition candidate.

    • Tom

      It is. But since that didn’t happen here, the comment is irrelevant.

      • Pait

        I suppose that in the age of alternative facts the phrase “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” can be interpreted in a different way, but I’m old-fashioned.

        • Eurydice

          It’s always helpful to read to the end of the sentence – i.e. “…and a majority of Republican candidates.”

          • Pait

            Right. I didn’t say that the article was bad, on the contrary it made good points – weakened by this silly stretch of post-truth reasoning that blames the president’s errors on the losing candidates.

          • Eurydice

            Well, I see it more as sharing the blame. If the idea was espoused by practically all candidates, right and left, then it’s not much of a stretch to assume that this subject would have come up no matter who won the election. As for blame for errors, who will shoulder what proportion will be determined if the idea is put into practice and whether the result is success or failure. So far, all we know is that Trump said something that other people have also said in the past.

          • Pait

            There is a difference between throwing an idea during a campaign and saying something as president, but I agree that, although words matter, in the end the judgement will depend on deeds.

        • Tom

          If being old fashioned means thinking that “It’s not all his fault” is the same as “Not his fault at all,” despite the differing words with differing meanings, perhaps one might wish to consider not being so.

          • Pait

            My point is that the argument in the post, which otherwise has merit, is weakened by the serious slip, which suggests carelessness or bias. There’s no need to make this into an overall defense or indictment of policies.

          • Tom

            No, actually, there’s EVERY need to make this into an overall defense or indictment of policies.
            A policy’s source only matters for whether or not it’s going to be implemented well.

  • Disappeared4x

    NOT confirmed: “Trump-Putin safe zones deal ousts Iran from Syria DEBKAfile DEBKA Weekly January 26, 2017, 2:55 PM (IDT) …a deal struck this week by US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish US, Russian and Turkish security zones in Syria. This scheme will transfer military control of the country to those three powers. Each of them will be responsible for a zone whose borders will be defined and agreed upon by Washington, Moscow and Ankara.

    As part of this arrangement, all forces from the Iranian military, the pro-Iranian Shiite militias and Hizballah will be required to leave Syria….

    debkafile’s military and intelligence sources report that the overriding change on the ground will be the establishment of a second US security zone adjacent to Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan. It means that the approximately 7,500 US special operations forces troops currently in Jordan will be shifted northward into southern Syria.

    Russia had originally planned to deploy Syrian military, pro-Iranian Shiite militia and Hizballah forces in battles for the capture of land around the cities of Derra and Quneitra on the Syrian side of the Golan. That plan has been dropped and will be superseded by the deployment in southern Syria of US troops accompanied by Jordanian special forces and Syrian rebels, trained by American instructors in Jordanian military camps. …”

    • CaliforniaStark

      Doubt the source, but if there is any merit to the report would assume the northern US Safe Zone would be manned by the Kurds. For all intents purpose they have already been working as surrogate American forces already.

      The possible south zone is extremely problematic — why not multi-national forces instead, besides the Jordanians?

  • FriendlyGoat

    Some Trump supporters might see this as an unexpected humanitarian gesture. Others might see it as a plan to discourage, if not prevent, Syrians from going anywhere else. No Trump supporters are being told or invited to guess how many American troops are to be sent to Syria or for what purpose. To the latter, I’ve always wondered why Trump supporters settled for a secret plan to knock out ISIS remaining secret from the Americans who would be asked to do it.

  • Tom_Holsinger

    Trump might be unclear on the concept of Syrians.

  • ვეფხისტყაოსანი

    Yes, it’s difficult, dangerous, and expensive. But it is also the best possible solution.

    We have 70 years’ experience with Muslim refugees from the Middle East; that experience has been mostly unhappy. And the recent influx in Germany has resulted in the realization that those refugees are incapable of working in a Western country: they are uneducated, unskilled, and illiterate (and often unwilling). Here on TAI, it’s been reported that a German 3rd grader is more competent than a Syrian 8th grader — and many Syrians’ educations stopped at 8th grade.

    They simply cannot be absorbed by the millions and tens of millions into the first world; therefore, we should create some means for them to remain safe and near their homes so that they can eventually return there.

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