Trump wants Syrian safe zones, but might be easier said than done

By Daniel DePetris

The first week of the Trump administration has witnessed a flurry of activity on everything from immigration and healthcare to business regulations and refugee admissions.  The development of President Trump’s foreign policy as a result has largely been on the backburner; with the exception of visits to the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department and some vaguely worded statements on the White House website, Americans inside and outside the Beltway are still trying to determine which direction the United States will travel in the world. 

There is one subject, however, that Trump himself appears to consider a top priority: creating safe-zones for civilians in Syria as a way to stem the refugee flow out of the region.  During an interview on ABC News, Trump declared that he’ll “absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people.”  Indeed, Trump took the safe-zone option so seriously that he included a separate section in a draft executive order tasking his Secretary of State and Defense to submit a plan within 90 days on the feasibility of establishing “safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region,” as well as the likely cost of the operation and what U.S. military resources would be required to sustain the zone (interestingly enough, that section wasn’t included in the final order released to the public on January 27).

This is the kind of directive all presidents delegate to their national security team, and it’s a reliable way of demonstrating to the American people the administration is fully cognizant of the serious problems facing the world. Orders such as these are also a way to show the country that the President of the United States is planning and thinking before doing anything rash, something that is especially appreciated in a post-Iraq war world. President Trump’s order to Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson is enveloped in that spirit: He wants to understand whether safe zones are an appropriate way of defending civilians in Syria and decreasing the flow of refugees from the region.

Interestingly enough, however, his predecessor undertook the exact same study during his tenure and came to a tough but ultimately strategically sound conclusion: U.S. imposition of a safe zone in the middle of a war would entail immense financial costs during a time of budget uncertainty in Washington; potentially dangerous repercussions in U.S.-Russia relations; and the possibility of a mid-air collision or challenge between aircraft of multiple countries currently flying in Syria’s airspace.

When Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee to come up with an assessment of what America’s options were in Syria and how Washington could degrade the Assad regime’s military capabilities, he sent a letter to the committee with a firm assessment: While the U.S. is certainly powerful enough to patrol Syria’s airspace and take out Assad’s air force, it would come at a conservative cost of $1 billion a month and the deployment of thousands of American ground troops to help enforce the safe zones. America’s top military officer at the time also believed a safe zone option would provide an inadvertent boost to militant groups that don’t have America’s interests in mind.

“The zones,” Dempsey wrote, “could…become operational bases for extremists.”  In other words, the U.S. military brass placed heavy doubt on an option that its most vocal proponents argued would be a relatively straightforward operation.

Although Chairman Dempsey’s letter was sent more than three years ago, the situation on the ground in Syria has devolved in such a way that safe zones would be an even more unrealistic policy option for the United States.

The Assad regime, in coordination with Russian and Iranian military forces and proxies on the ground and in the air, is now in control of every major provincial capital with the exception of Idlib in the northwest. If the moderate opposition were at risk of being defeated or co-opted by the more powerful extremist factions several years ago, today they are at their weakest point militarily since the war began.

Moscow is now more involved in Syria that at any point since the end of the Cold War— on January 20, Russia signed a long-term lease agreement with the Syrian government to expand the airbase Russian planes have used for the last 18 months. Russia, in short, still owns the skies. And if we know anything about how the Russians operate, they will pick and probe in order to determine whether the U.S. is in fact committed to doing what it set out to do. That means any safe zone U.S. pilots are asked to keep clear will likely require our airmen to make life-or-death decisions when Russian aircraft inevitably test America’s commitment to enforcement.

Safe zones by their very nature also include a ground component. Just as aircraft circle overhead to prevent an enemy force from attacking from the air, personnel will need to be deployed in the outer corridors of the zones in order to ensure extremist groups, pro-government militias, or Syrian troops don’t breach the perimeter and cause havoc to the people residing within the boundaries.

The massacre in Srebrenica in 1995 revealed in graphic detail to the international community how feckless safe zones or humanitarian corridors are if they don’t incorporate a ground force strong enough to stop a hostile force from overrunning it.

In Bosnia, 8,000 men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces because there weren’t enough U.N. peacekeepers — and those who were stationed in the area had murky legal authority to defend the people they were tasked with protecting. The result was an utter humiliation for the United Nations and a series of crimes against humanity the world failed to prevent.

Given the fact that Arab states don’t appear to be particularly interested in using their own troops to patrol safe areas — and that the Turks are concerned with Kurdish territorial expansion more than anything else — the U.S. would have to deploy tens of thousands of its own soldiers to make the zones a success.  As Srebrenica exposed with such disturbing clarity, civilians who are tightly congregated in a designated area would be highly vulnerable from being attacked without protection from a sizable ground presence that operates under a clear chain-of-command and with the lethal authority to defend them from hostile forces.

Pentagon officials are reportedly perplexed by President Trump’s order to plan for safe zones, perhaps because they recognize how difficult, costly, and risky the job would be.

Providing a secure area for civilians to live in the middle of Syria’s civil war and a safe space for humanitarian organizations to deliver aid and assistance is a noble but faulty option. That was true during the Obama administration, and it’s still true today.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on February 1, 2017. Read more HERE