Even before revealing details of how safe zones in Syria will work, US President Donald Trump’s vague proposal, made soon after his inauguration, is creating confusion, questions and doubts on most sides.
Trump has reportedly discussed the idea with Saudi, Emirati, Jordanian and Turkish leaders by phone, direct messages and face-to-face meetings. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi support his proposal. Jordan’s King Abdullah, who met Trump in Washington a week ago, was briefed on the idea, but Amman is yet to react. Russia has said it needs more information, but has not rejected the proposal outright.
More importantly, perhaps, Syrian President Bashar Assad has flatly rejected it, describing it as “unrealistic” and only possible “when you have stability and security, where you don’t have terrorists, where you don’t have flow and support of those terrorists by the neighboring countries or by Western countries.”
But while the world awaits more details from the US, political and military developments in Syria are moving fast, putting Trump’s project on hold, but not for long. According to independent figures, there are 6.6 million internally displaced Syrians and over 4.5 million refugees in five regional countries. The number of internally displaced could change in light of ongoing fighting in Ghouta, Daraa, Deir Al-Zour, Idlib, Al-Bab and later in Raqqa.
As the Astana process picks up pace, leading to a resumption of the Geneva talks next week, maintaining the cease-fire and providing humanitarian aid to stranded civilians will emerge as top issues. The idea of safe zones could find its way to the negotiating table later.
For Turkey, which has been calling for the creation of safe zones along its border with Syria for years, the subject conceals political and humanitarian motives. Politically, Ankara wants to thwart attempts by Syrian Kurds to create an autonomous enclave along most of northern Syria. For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this represents an existential threat to Turkey.
The administration of former US President Barack Obama never warmed to Erdogan’s calls, prompting Ankara to act unilaterally, dispatching Syrian rebels — backed by Turkish tanks, war planes and artillery — into northern Syria in the summer of 2016 under Operation Euphrates Shield. Since then, the Turkish military and its Syrian allies have captured a number of key towns, pushing the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) further east.
After bitter fighting this week, Turkish troops have advanced to capture most of Daesh-held Al-Bab, the gateway to Raqqa. This prompted Erdogan to announce that a planned Turkish-imposed safe zone would cover at least 4,000-5,000 square kilometers and require a no-fly zone. The legitimacy and viability of this remains in question. It could still be targeted by the SDF, the Syrian Army and its Iranian allies.
Despite the recent Turkish-Russian entente on Syria, Ankara remains suspicious that planned peace talks could award Syria’s Kurds a form of autonomy under a wider deal between Washington and Moscow.Osama Al-Sharif
Despite the recent Turkish-Russian entente on Syria, Ankara remains suspicious that planned peace talks could award Syria’s Kurds a form of autonomy under a wider deal between Washington and Moscow.
Unlike Turkey, Jordan cannot afford, nor does it want, to carry out a military incursion into southern Syria, a region that is vital to its national security. Instead, it is building a coalition of moderate rebel groups and local tribal fighters to fend off a possible Daesh advance. It is also carrying out pre-emptive airstrikes against Daesh positions in southern Syria.
Jordan’s key objective is to secure its northern border against a possible breach by Daesh and other terrorist groups. Creating safe zones in southern Syria would prevent a future refugee influx into Jordan, and may encourage some of the 600,000 Syrian refugees in the Kingdom to return to their country.
Jordan has prevented refugees in two makeshift camps on the Syrian side of the border from entering. It believes both camps have been infiltrated by Daesh. Last October, the militant organization carried out a suicide attack against Jordanian security personnel in a nearby buffer area, killing and injuring dozens.
The idea of creating safe zones is fraught with problems. For starters, there are legal issues at hand. Who will provide the mandate to set up such zones, and more importantly, how will they be managed and who will bear the cost? A number of US security experts have warned Trump that without boots on the ground and aerial protection, these safe zones could be targeted by the regime or become safe havens for extremists.
With fighters from many groups and militias mingling with civilians, Idlib and Raqqa being classic cases, it will be difficult to designate civilian-only safe zones without ground troops. This underlines the complexity of the Syrian situation. Trump’s proposal may seem noble and simple enough, but its application and implications raise more questions than answers.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.