Trump’s Syria safe zone plan ‘realistic’ but hinges on Russia’s consent

US President Donald Trump speaks during a joint press conference with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May in the East Room of the White House on Friday in Washington, DC. (AFP)
Updated 02 February 2017

Trump’s Syria safe zone plan ‘realistic’ but hinges on Russia’s consent

WASHINGTON: With US President Donald Trump’s formal executive order to establish “safe zones” in Syria expected imminently, experts see the plan as realistic in at least two areas of the country.
But it all hinges on Russia’s acquiescence and implicit support to minimize the US military commitment, the Syria-watchers suggested.
The news of a safe zone emerged this week following the leak of a draft executive order halting most Syrian refugee resettlement in the US. It suggested “a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement.”
While officials from both the State and Defense departments told Arab News they are waiting for “formal directives” before commenting on hypothetical plans and drafts, experts who closely follow the Syrian conflict saw the move — in its timing and intent — as “realistic” and achievable.
Trump’s bargain
Following the leak of the draft, Trump told ABC News that he “will absolutely do safe zones in Syria.” This was the second time since winning the election in November that he has spoken with such clarity on the issue.
On Nov. 17, the then President-elect Trump told his supporters: “in Syria, take a big swatch of land, which believe me, you get for the right price, OK?... what I’d like is build a safe zone, it’s here, build a big beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier.”
Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and at the Jamestown Foundation, tells Arab News that Trump “is serious about this proposal, as are senior members of his administration.”
The bargain that Trump, the businessman, sees in the safe zone plan is the following, explains Heras, “a way to alleviate human suffering in Syria while at the same time prevent future refugee flows that threaten the stability of Europe and which put political pressure on the US to accept Syrian refugees.”
Such a plan would be designed “with minimal commitment from Washington,” says Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington.
Logistics and potential layout
Hassan, co-author of the bestseller “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” tells Arab News that “no more resources than are already dedicated to the fight against ISIS in eastern and southern Syria would be required from the US.”
It is in these areas where the US is battling Daesh that the safe zones would be located. Heras identifies two locations in Syria “where there is the immediate opportunity that safe zones could be built.” The first is in the north “in the territory stretching from the eastern Aleppo suburbs to the Syrian-Iraqi border in the northeastern tip of Syria,” he adds. The second “is in southwestern Syria, along the Syrian-Jordanian and Syrian-Golan Heights borders.”
Hassan agrees that these areas “are de facto safe zones and what is lacking is a policy to help people return to their areas and rebuild their communities.” He sees such an approach “essential and not optional, if the US is to ensure ISIS does not regenerate.”
While there is a risk of the Assad government bombarding these areas, Heras notes that the regime and its allies have had “a military manpower problem and can only carry out limited military campaigns to take and hold territory that is close to Assad’s statelet in western Syria.” The areas under consideration “have been independent from the Assad government and under self-governance since 2011 and 2012, and are not likely to return to Assad government control for a long time,” he adds.
Russia’s green light?
Both Hassan and Heras see Russia’s blessing or at least acquiescence to such plans as critical. “No safe zones will be built in Syria without Russia’s acceptance,” says Heras. Moscow’s role will be key to “apply pressure on the Assad government, and to work to reduce the influence of the Iranians and their proxy forces inside of Assad’s statelet, as part of a broader ‘Balkans’-like international stabilization mission for Syria.”
Russia’s improved relations with Turkey and their latest joint cooperation in Syria on the political and counterterrorism fronts make these safe zones “more realistic,” says Hassan. He explains that “Turkey and Russia have been working together to deescalate the situation, and this relationship can be utilized to neutralize the civilian population from the ongoing operations.”
These foreign spheres of influence in Syria “make it easy to reach a bargain to establish safe zones in areas where hostilities between the main warring parties are not reduced or non-existent,” Hassan adds. “The fragmentation of Syria along various spheres of influence is an opportunity to create safe areas that allow displaced people, especially in neighboring countries, to go back to the country and unlike before, this does not need to be seen by Damascus and its allies as a threat.”
Hassan emphasizes the importance of coordination “with countries in the region and in Europe to build the capacity of the local communities to police their own areas and prevent jihadists from building influence and networks in those areas.”
As far as the US military commitment is concerned to protect these safe zones, it would all be contingent on Assad’s response, says Heras. “If Assad decides to attack them, the US will need to be able to strike Assad government targets, either using standoff weapons like cruise missiles, or by launching airstrikes,” adds the defense analyst. If the Assad government chooses to wage a ground campaign, “it will require US ground forces — tens of thousands — with local partners to hold them off.”

Kabul expects US to share peace deal details

Updated 48 min 37 sec ago

Kabul expects US to share peace deal details

  • Afghan government excluded from all rounds of talks
  • Washington is keen for the deal to be signed before Sept. 1

KABUL: Afghanistan said on Saturday it expects the US to share details of a peace deal with the Taliban before it is signed, having been excluded from all rounds of talks.

US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has led diplomats through at least nine rounds of talks with members of the armed group in Qatar since last summer.

A deal could pave the way for a complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and end almost two decades of fighting in the country.

But President Ashraf Ghani’s government has been left out of the talks because of objections from the Taliban, which views his regime as a puppet of the West.

The current round of discussions has been described as crucial because, according to present and former Taliban officials, both parties are expected to soon sign a deal.

“The Afghan government expects that it (agreement) will be shared before it is finalized for signing,” Ghani’s chief spokesman, Sediq Seddiqi, told Arab News.

He said Kabul could not say when the deal would be signed, and that troops’ departure would be condition-based and not based on a timeline set by the Taliban.

“Well, force reduction will be based on conditions, the terrorist threat is potential and we must fight it together for our common safety and in order to prevent any major terrorist attacks on the world’s capitals. 

“We must deny terrorists from holding free ground in Afghanistan and turning it into a safe haven. The presence of some forces, and continued and meaningful support to the Afghan security and defense forces, will be key to our success.”

The Taliban wants all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan within a set timetable and, in return, the group says it will not allow Afghan soil to be used against any foreign country or US interests.

Afghan and US officials have warned against a total pullout of troops because, they argue, the Taliban will try to regain power by force and the country will slide back into chaos after troops leave.

But some say a continued presence will prolong the conflict, as neighboring powers oppose the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and see it as a trigger for extremism.

The Taliban could not be reached immediately for comment about media reports, which cited the group’s former and current officials as saying that a deal with Washington was imminent.

“We have an agreement on a timeframe for the withdrawal,” Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s spokesman for the Qatar talks, told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. “Discussions are now focused on its implementation mechanism. We have had general discussions today,” he added, referring to current discussions in Doha. “Tomorrow, we shall have discussions on the implementation part.”

Another Taliban spokesman said the top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, had taken part in the current talks which, according to some observers, showed the importance of the discussions and the possibility of a final deal.

Washington is keen for the deal to be signed before Sept. 1, weeks ahead of a crucial and controversial presidential poll in Afghanistan. 

Ghani, who is standing for re-election, says the polls are his priority. Some politicians believe that peace will have to come first and that the vote will have to be delayed.

Abdul Satar Saadat, who served as an adviser to Ghani, said the Taliban and US were racing against time as any delay would damage trust between the two and prompt the Taliban to fight for another five years.

“Because of this both sides are doing their utmost to sign the deal, delay the polls and begin an intra-Afghan dialogue like Oslo,” he told Arab News.