US President Donald Trump announced late last month on ABC News that he "will absolutely do safe zones in Syria" to protect the people fleeing violence in the war-torn country—a statement that has on the one hand stirred debate on the streets of Syria, and cast a shadow on Iranian-Russian-Turkish dealings on the other.
Trump’s remarks came in conjunction with Reuters publishing a document on the new US President’s directives to his secretaries of defence and state to put together a plan regarding establishing safe zones in Syria within ninety days. This was followed by a phone call between Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the latter of whom accepted Trump's offer to finance the establishment of these zones in partnership with the UAE.
The statements were characterized by their ambiguity, particularly in terms of the absence of any details about the locations of these safe zones—specifically within or outside Syrian borders—along with the non-disclosure of implementation mechanisms, the countries that will secure their parameters, and the bodies that will bear the cost. Nonetheless, the consequences of the statement were felt on the debating tables across the capitals concerned with the Syrian crisis.
Going back a little, we see that the idea of establishing safe zones in Syria was not born with Trump. Turkey was the first to propose this in 2015. At the time, talks focused on securing a 100-kilometer stretch of land in northern Syria, from Jarabulus to Azaz, with the possibility of further expansion to reach Afrin. The area was proposed to be of a depth of around fifty kilometers.
The declared purpose of establishing these zones is protecting Syrian civilians and refugees within the Syrian borders. The concept also relies on Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which gives the Security Council the right to use armed force in order to secure world peace.
Yet, implementing this proposal is no small feat. If Trump decides to carry on, it may require imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, which calls for increasing US presence in Syria and may even require the deployment of ground troops.
Trump vs. Obama
The idea of safe zones was also proposed by others during Barack Obama’s tenure, who refused all similar suggestions, including the Turkish proposal during the G20 Antalya summit held in 2015.
Obama justified his refusal by saying he wanted to avoid US entanglement in the Syrian quagmire in a manner that may threaten Washington's interests in the Middle East, in addition to the economic, military and political cost.
Yet, Trump appears to be of a different opinion. In mid-December last year, before a rally of supporters in the US city of Hershey, Pennsylvania, Trump vowed to establish humanitarian safe zones in Syria to stop the inflow of refugees to the US. He demanded that the Gulf states finance the project.
Ahmad Mounir, Syria's deputy minister of national reconciliation, said that Trump's concept of safe zones is riddled with ambiguity. "If he means humanitarian areas set aside to protect civilians from military bombardment under the supervision of the Syrian legitimate government and in the hands of the Syrians only, there is no doubt that Damascus will support this proposal," he said. "But the military concept of the establishment of zones of influence and no-fly zones, accompanied by foreign military presence that may turn into terrorism dens; Syria is absolutely opposed to such a proposal."
Mounir told Raseef22 that Washington put forward this proposal, in the beginning, in an attempt to divide Syria, hoping to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. He added that the US administration is now seeking to revive the idea, albeit in a different form from the original suggestion.
A Political Trap
In contrast, Vyacheslav Matuzov, a former Russian diplomat, said that this decision would divide Syria into a safe zone under US auspices, an area in northern Syria under Turkish auspices, a third area in Damascus and Aleppo under Syrian government influence, and another area controlled by Islamic State, which would break up a unified Syria into several statelets.
In a televised interview, Matuzov warned of a prospective clash between Washington and Moscow if the decision is enforced. He questioned what would happen when Russian military forces with sophisticated arms are deployed, and how the US would move then to protect the so-called safe zones.
He argued that the decision may not be even Trump's, but that rather originated from his inner circle that wants to implicate embarrass him before the Russian ally, especially after the president’s ostensible rapprochement with Putin.
"We have seen the U.S. President's request for conducting a study on safe zones in Syria. What is important is the results of this study and what kind of recommendation will come out," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu said during a press conference.
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The Turkish reaction was not surprising. Turkish political analyst Muhammed Zahid Gul stated that the US concept of safe havens has not been clarified yet, adding that all media rants about safe zones point to safe buffer areas agreed upon by the parties of conflict, rather than legal areas imposed by UN resolution.
Gul told Raseef22 that many meetings that brought together the leaders of the countries concerned with the Syrian crisis touched upon the establishment of safe humanitarian areas, far from the military targeting, to create havens for displaced civilian.
He said that the Turkish vision was met by a formal Russian opposition that does not effectively obstruct the establishment of these areas on the ground. "Politics in Turkey—the lukewarm victory of the Justice and Development Party in the June 7, 2016 elections, its inability to form a government for six months, and resorting to early elections—have frozen the project temporarily," he added. "The ongoing Operation Euphrates Shield is considered the nucleus for establishing these zones."
Moreover, he added that Ankara’s priorities are focused on Turkish national security, and as such there is no opposition to the establishment of such zones provided that they do not pose a threat to Turkey’s national security. Yet, he added, the prospect of dividing Syria into spheres of influence, thereby threatening its neighbors—through supporting Kurds and their independence—would be absolutely unacceptable, even if the proposal reflects both the US and Russian visions.
Conditional Russian Approval
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented on Trump's remarks saying that Moscow would not mind establishing safe zones, subject to the approval of the legitimate authority in Damascus and after coordination with the Syrian government regarding the means of implementing the decision.
Mosalam Cheaito, chairman of the Russian-Arab Center, said that Russia's position does not come in compliance with the US proposal, but rather to maintain Moscow's approach in promoting reconciliation in Syria, through demographically expanding the safe zones to include new parties that could join the political scene later on.
In a televised interview, Cheaito pointed out that the new US president seeks to establish zones that will put him back on the Syrian scene, starting with the existing US military bases in the Kurdish Syrian North. He added that the US seeks to maintain its interests and economic security, having accused Germany of hosting refugees at abnormal rates.
He concluded that safe zones pave the way for Washington to return to the negotiation table when the time comes to divide the spoils of war.
Why Saudi Arabia Now?
Trump's opinion regarding the Gulf states in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, raises many question. After his attack on Riyadh during his election campaign, in which he demanded that the kingdom to bear the burden of defending itself against terrorism, he emerged with renewed demands that Saudi Arabia and the UAE fund the establishment of safe zones in Syria, according to the White House statement following Trump's phone call with the Saudi King and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
Having vouched their approval, Riyadh and Dubai are in return betting on Trump’s support for the Saudi efforts to counter Iranian influence, amid claims of the latter’s continued meddling in the affairs of the Middle East.
A Publicity Stunt
Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo Gamal Abdel Gawad said the US proposal to establish safe zones is more of publicity stunt than a realistic course of action.
Abdel Gawad told Raseef22 that the concept of safe zones may be suitable to manage a crisis, but now, as the crisis has reached its final frontier, it is no longer appropriate, especially as “the rules of the game have changed”.
He pointed out that Trump's proposal is no more than an attempt to court the global trend towards supporting the rights of refugees. "The man wants to convey a message to the world that banning the entry of refugees does not mean stripping them of their rights," he stressed.
Finally, he concluded that a conflict regarding these zones, between Washington on the one hand, and Moscow and Tehran on the other, is unlikely. "Influential parties on the field are well aware of the conflict and its current stage," he said. "It makes no sense, politically and diplomatically, for them to fall into the trap of such a conflict."