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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)
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.”