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 protection of some 400 lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers. In just a few days, more than 8,000 boys and men were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.
But safe zones have succeeded when political will and military capability were aligned. In 1991, a U.S.-European alliance of more than 20,000 troops established both a no-fly zone and a safe zone in northern Iraq to protect Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s forces. Operation Provide Comfort not only saved thousands of civilians, but also prevented a refugee exodus into Turkey. To be sure, establishing a safe zone in Syria, with its well-armed combatants and shifting alliances, would be far trickier than in Iraq.
Second, Trump will have to get the messaging right. To satisfy U.S. allies and the American people, he will need clear justifications for the creation of safe zones. But so far, the administration's Syria messaging has been muddled. After Assad’s sarin attack, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said that regime change was a “priority.” Yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson implied that U.S. policy is focused on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) and preventing future chemical attacks, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the strikes had a “huge humanitarian component.”
The administration should consider reframing its Syria policy in humanitarian terms. If it did, safe zones could be justified as a concrete step toward saving Syrian refugees from both Assad and ISIS. That would send a strong message to Assad and possibly reenergize the Syrian peace process. Because Assad has relied heavily on indiscriminate air attacks on rebel-held civilian areas, military experts have said that safe zones in Syria would need a no-fly zone in order to effectively protect civilians. Depending on its range, a no-fly zone could also significantly impede Assad’s ability to use air power. Deprived of his most brutal yet effective tactics, Assad might see renewed value in pursuing a negotiated settlement.
Third, in making its case for safe zones in Syria, the Trump administration can gain more by relying on international law than by rejecting it. After the cruise missile strike, Assad could characterize any U.S. intervention in Syria as a prelude to regime change. But international law could help mitigate these concerns, at least for U.S. allies. For example, the United States could invoke a number of legal grounds to support safe zones in Syria. In a rare moment of agreement, the Security Council passed Resolution 2254, requiring Syrian combatants to stop targeting civilians. Trump could justify safe zones as necessary to protect Syrian civilians from such targeted killings, which have been condemned by international observers.
The United States could also rely on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), an emerging legal doctrine that applies when a sovereign state is unwilling or unable to prevent mass atrocities within its borders and the Security Council has also repeatedly failed to stop those atrocities. But R2P would only authorize force to defend a Syria safe zone, not open-ended military campaigns against ISIS or the Assad regime. Meanwhile, if NATO intervenes alongside the United States, it might justify safe zones along Turkey’s border as the collective defense of a NATO member state.
Safe zones' biggest risk is that they could draw the United States into Syria’s conflict indefinitely.
Fourth, the administration will also need to establish clear rules of engagement. As in Iraq’s Operation Provide Comfort, safe zones must be protected by a robust air and ground force that answers to a clear chain of command. From Srebrenica to South Sudan, safe zones have failed precisely because they were not adequately protected. These failures were caused more by lack of political will than inadequate firepower; U.N. peacekeepers often operate under weak rules of engagement that all but guarantee that they can’t intervene. Robust rules of engagement would signal to both Assad and refugees that the United States is serious about protecting civilians who enter the zone. As of now, however, there may not be sufficient political will in the United States to provide the robust engagement required.
Fifth, the United States needs an exit strategy. The biggest risk of safe zones is that they could draw the United States and its allies into Syria’s grinding, multidimensional conflict indefinitely. Given the Assad regime’s threat to Syrian civilians, the United States should tie withdrawal to a nationwide ceasefire or peace agreement featuring international peacekeepers.
A humanitarian U.S. strategy in Syria may encourage Iran and Russia to support a negotiated settlement, leading to genuine stability in the region. As it considers a safe-zone policy, the Trump administration should clarify how it will coordinate its military operations with its engagement in the Syrian peace process and political transition, which has not happened to date.
Finally, safe zones must establish law and order and ensure that refugees’ basic needs—food, medicine, shelter—are met. But the U.S. military will need international support to prevent safe zones from being infiltrated by extremist groups; to have U.S. soldiers policing Syrian refugees would uncomfortably evoke memories of Iraq and Afghanistan. To provide internal security, regional allies, whose soldiers have closer cultural and linguistic ties to Syrians, would be far more effective.
Indeed, many regional allies have expressed support for safe zones. In northern Syria, Turkey, which has already pursued “terror-free zones” along its Syrian border, could be a willing partner as long as Kurdish forces aren’t involved. In southern Syria, where Hezbollah and ISIS are active, establishing safe zones would be riskier from a military standpoint. Israel and Jordan, however, both appear eager to stem the tide of refugees and prevent non-state actors from establishing a strategic foothold on their borders. Effective safe zones could accomplish both these objectives.
Developing safe zones within Syria remains a real possibility, and Russia presented a concrete plan for safe zones during last week’s Astana ceasefire discussions. After discussing this proposal during his meeting with Trump and Tillerson this week, Lavrov said that Russia hoped the diplomatic “fireworks” over safe zones would evolve into a sustainable agreement to protect civilians. Although the Trump administration should remain wary of Russian intentions, these high-level discussions underscore that safe zones could be in the strategic interests of both the United States and Russia.
Some foreign policy experts still argue that the United States does not have a vital interest in Syria’s fate. But the refugee crisis is now radiating far beyond Syria, destabilizing the Middle East and disrupting European society. A smart safe zone policy could stem the flow of refugees by providing pockets of security within Syria. It could also reenergize efforts to reach a negotiated peace settlement, the key to solving Syria’s seemingly intractable refugee crisis. A clear, well-conceived strategy could create safe zones that are both big and beautiful.