US President Donald Trump made clear his intention to undo the legacy of Barack Obama and offer a different Middle East policy.
No better place to start than Syria, especially considering it was the most prominent stain on Obama’s foreign policy record where he was reluctant to intervene in two watershed moments: in 2013, when a no-fly zone was a military option to cripple the Syrian regime’s air force; and in 2015, when a safe zone was meant to shelter refugees in northern Syria.
While Obama did not act because he was considering the possible military outcome of that decision, Trump is now limiting the safe zone debate to a US homeland security perspective.
Trump’s thinking on Syria was motivated by keeping Syrian refugees, and the risks they allegedly pose, away from the United States and Europe. He is now following through on his campaign promise.
That link between establishing a safe zone and suspending the admission of Syrian refugees to the US was evident in the draft executive order dedicated to prevent “foreign terrorists” from entering the country. Ultimately that provision was not included in the final version of the executive order released on January 27. However, Trump remains adamant about advancing this issue.
On January 29, he officially requested Saudi support for implementing safe zones that help alleviate the burden of “those who are suffering”. Obviously, one cannot ignore the stark moral contradiction between considering Syrian refugees as “detrimental to the interests of the United States” and intervening in their country to help them.
Given the military dynamics in Syria, a safe zone is not achievable without a no-fly zone and it requires significant resources as well as regional buy-in.
The US military has been and remains reluctant to take part in such a plan that carries risks of confrontation by transforming its role from defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) to policing a safe zone.
The Pentagon estimated that it will take between 15,000 and 30,000 US troops to secure a safe zone in Syria with a cost of at least $1bn a month.
The Trump administration should not expect the safe zone to run on cruise control without heavy US involvement. Past experiences in Iraq and Bosnia tell us that US interest in enforcing such a zone will run out of steam over time and regional players will probably fill in the vacuum and further feed the conflict.
In the regional context, the safe zone can indeed be a game changer. A lot has happened in Syria since the last time that plan was seriously considered in Washington
A safe zone must be part of a Syria policy as well as the larger picture of how the Trump administration sees its role in the Middle East. It is an end point, not the starting point for that policy debate.
What is disconcerting, though, is the White House’s interventionist impulse. It is unclear to what extent the Pentagon can continue to play a check-and-balance role when the joint chiefs of staff have been relegated in the structure of the National Security Council.
The safe zone policy will probably be a by-product of the tug of war inside the Trump administration.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Trump’s ‘real estate’
approach to safe zones in Syria’.