President Donald Trump said this week that he would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria” to stem the flow of refugees into other countries.
Trump is expected to ask the Pentagon and State Department to draft a plan for establishing the safe zones, so it’s currently unclear what measures specifically Trump would authorise.
But experts warn that creating and defending safe zones inside of Syria could lead to escalation — and potentially drag the US into a global conflict.
In the Syrian civil war, which is almost in its sixth year, the Obama administration supported Syrian rebels who opposed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. But the primary US goal in Syria has been to eradicate terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda-affiliated factions.
Then, in 2015, Russia entered the conflict to help the Assad regime. Iran, a major Assad ally, is also involved in the conflict. And establishing safe zones inside the country could result provoking those countries — the US would need to defend the zone from external bombardment from both terrorist groups and a regime that has been known to indiscriminately bomb civilians.
“I do think that it presents escalation risks,” Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was formerly a country director for Syria at the Department of Defence, told Business Insider.
“If the US decides to pursue a safe zone, it needs to do so in the broader framework that looks at what sort of levers, what sort of coercive measures can the US bring to bear on Russia, Assad, and Iran to ensure that the safe zone is not violated and to mitigate the risks of military confrontation.”
It’s unclear whether a safe zone would mean imposing no-fly restrictions above the territory, but it’s likely that protecting the airspace would be necessary to guard against airstrikes. And if that is the case, the US might need to be prepared to shoot down any aircraft that violates the no-fly zone — a move that could lead to war.
“I don’t think my country is willing to risk World War III over Syria,” Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who was the US ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, told Business Insider in June.
Trump himself said in October that his then-political rival’s plan for resolving the Syrian conflict, which included establishing no-fly zones and safe zones, would “lead to World War III.” He used the same logic many experts are now using to express scepticism about his own plan.
“What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria,” Trump told The Guardian. “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”
He continued: “You’re not fighting Syria anymore, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right? Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk.”
Russia also issued a veiled warning to the Trump administration.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday that it’s important for the US to “think about the potential consequences of establishing safe zones” in Syria.
Dalton explained that with Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, “any sort of military intervention by the US whether it’s a no-fly zone or a safe zone would have to be coordinated with the Russians.” Assad might also need to be involved in negotiations about a no-fly zone so that all parties in the conflict are in agreement about which areas are off-limits.
“If there were terms struck with Russia and Assad such that they were supportive of the creation of this safe zone and it was far enough distance away from where extremist groups are operating such that Assad and the Russians are not going to strike in that area, perhaps the requirements for a complete no-fly zone might not be as strong,” Dalton said.
But the problem with this strategy is that the Assad regime considers his opposition to be comprised completely of terrorists, meaning he’d be unlikely to support a safe-zone that included rebels who oppose him.
“Given the marbled nature of the different groups that are present in northern Syria, it’s very difficult to separate the interlaced communities that the US may deem as civilians versus what Assad and the Russians deem as a threat or extremists,” Dalton said.
“That then leads to the potential of escalation, whether or not the US has a strong no-fly zone in place or not.”
Negotiating with Assad would also likely require concessions for his regime, which Syrians would not be happy with.
Additionally, protecting the safe zone would likely require an increased presence of US troops on the ground, and that also carries potential for escalation.
“A safe zone is more than a no-fly zone,” Ford, the former ambassador to Syria, said in an email Friday. “It presumably means that not only do enemy aeroplanes [not] drop bombs on civilians, but there is no tank/artillery shelling into the safe zone either. That means, of course, the possibility of [the US Air Force] attacking Syria/Iran-backed forces on the ground if they fire into the zone.”
Jim Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation, told Reuters that “this essentially boils down to a willingness to go to war to protect refugees.”
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