He said he’d do, it. He repeated he’d do it. Now it looks as if he’s actively looking at the plans on how to do it.
In his first TV interview after taking office President Trump repeated what he said during the election campaign telling ABC News that he “will absolutely do safe zones in Syria”.
Details were not forthcoming in the interview, nor in the executive order which followed on the temporary 7 nation travel ban in which it had been expected there might be hints. A draft however had stated that the State Dept and Pentagon “is directed within 90 days of the date of this order to produce a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region…”
Now though Reuters says it has seen a document which says Trump is expected to order the Pentagon and the State Department to craft a plan “in the coming days”. If true, this could explain why recently the Saudis have suggested they would support the move, and why on Monday Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said that if a US led coalition gets involved, Ankara aims to create a safe zone by extending its military operations to the towns of Manbij and Raqqa once ISIS has been driven back. He noted it would require a no-fly zone. And therein lies the complications, because who is it that would be dissuaded from flying in this zone? The forces of Russia’s ally, Syria’s President Assad.
Working out the “deconfliction protocols” by which coalition and Russian aircraft would avoid flying into each other would be a complicated affair, but far less complicated than the diplomacy.
A no-fly zone requires, at least, the potential to suppress ground to air defenses, their radar facilities, and possibly headquarters. That would give Russia a problem. As well as flying missions to support Assad’s forces, the Russians remember being suckered over Libya when a “no-fly zone” turned into a full NATO bombardment to overthrow Gaddafi. To get Russian assent now will require other powers making unpalatable promises to Moscow.
So, Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, Paris, Jordan, and others, need to work out where the safe areas would be, who would police what, what scale of air power is required, and how many ground troops needed to provide force protection, search and rescue, and combat ability if required. After all, it’s difficult to protect civilians from 25,000 feet above them. Furthermore, a plan to keep apart Syrian, Russian, Turkish, rebel, jihadist, Kurdish, American, and ISIS forces would need to be implemented. There would be little point making an area safe from ISIS only to find Syrian troops advancing into it.
As for location: Northern areas above Aleppo, up to the Turkish border, is one possibility. Eastwards from Aleppo towards the Euphrates River Valley is another. Jordan’s King Abdullah is rumoured to have discussed a southern safe zone near his (relatively quieter) border when he met Trump’s team in Washington recently. There’s even a scenario in which Russia polices the north west of Syria to try and hold a ceasefire together.
The Pentagon’s top end projections see up to 30,000 US troops entering the fray at the cost of $1 billion a month. But those plans were drawn up before the political landscape changed. Now there’s the possibility of co-operation between Trump and Putin, and between Putin and Erdogan. Besides, Trump will be keen for others to pay the costs of a substantial part of any engagement which is where the Germans could come in financially, and the British with air assets.
We seem a long way from any formal plans being put on the table, but we are now in a political space where the willingness to so do is emerging. Creating safe zones and no fly zones is dangerous, but so is not creating them.