In response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sarin gas attack on civilians in rebel-held areas in April, U.S. President Donald Trump launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase. Over three weeks later, the world is no closer to understanding what his administration hopes to achieve in Syria. The strikes marked the first time the United States has used force in the country in response to Assad’s atrocities, and it is unclear whether it will be the last.
After seven years of conflict, some 11 million Syrians have fled their homes or died trying, and that number is sure to grow without international involvement. If the Trump administration is serious about protecting Syrians fleeing Assad and ISIS, one policy option stands out: safe zones. During the campaign, Trump even advocated for “build[ing] a big beautiful safe zone” in Syria. Trump recently reemphasized his support for safe zones during a May 2 call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has expressed caution about recent safe zone proposals, nothing that “the devil is always in the details.”
U.S. military planners are right to be wary. However, safe zones may be an effective answer to Syria’s humanitarian crisis. They may be easier to defend and police than humanitarian aid corridors, and they may provide key protection for Syria’s long-suffering civilian population. They could also be diplomatically viable. Most negotiating parties in Syria, including Russia, Turkey, the United States, and the Syrian state have expressed support for some sort of safe zone during recent peace talks in Astana. But history teaches that if improperly administered, such plans do more harm than good. To stand any chance of success, Trump’s safe zone policy would need to focus on six crucial elements.
First, planners must learn from history. Historically, safe zones have been anything but. During the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s, the United Nations designated Srebrenica a “safe area” and left more 50,000 civilians under the massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.
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