Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Fifteen Questions Trump Should Answer About His “Safe Zones”

by Micah Zenko
January 30, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks after attending a swearing-in ceremony for Defense Secretary James Mattis with Vice President Mike Pence at the Pentagon on January 27, 2017 (Reuters/Carlos Barria).


Yesterday, the White House released the readout of a call between President Donald Trump and the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud. The statement featured this remarkable statement: “The President requested and the King agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts.”

During the presidential campaign, Trump, as well as Mike Pence, repeatedly endorsed the creation of safe zones in Syria, without adding any clarification. Trump proclaimed that unnamed Middle East countries would pay for the “big, beautiful safe zone” in Syria, while Pence during the vice presidential debate proclaimed they would “create a route for safe passage” and “protect people in those areas, including with the no-fly zone.” Five days later, when asked about his running mate’s position Trump declared flatly: “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”

Political campaigns are consequence-free environments, but statements made while serving as chief of state should reflect actual government policy. If President Trump is now serious about authorizing the U.S. armed forces to implement safe zones (as indicated by his request to the Saudi monarch), he and his senior aides must clarify exactly what he means by this new, expansive, and poorly conceived military mission.

I have written about no-fly zones and safe zones for more than fifteen years. But rather than re-package previous analysis, here are fifteen questions that Congress, journalists, and citizens should expect the Trump administration to answer:

  1. What is the ultimate political objective of the safe zones? For example, will they provide temporary humanitarian refuge for internally displaced persons, or leverage for a brokered peace agreement?
  2. What is the domestic legal basis for them?
  3. As the sovereign government of Syria will presumably oppose them, what is the international legal basis?
  4. Where exactly within Syria or Yemen will they be located, and why were those locations chosen?
  5. Will non-combatants as well as rebel groups residing within the safe zones be protected? If not, how will residents be vetted, and who will do the vetting?
  6. Will those residing within safe zones be protected from all forms of harm, including aerial bombing, artillery shelling, small arms fire, sniper fire, starvation, and lack of clean drinking water and sanitation?
  7. Will those residing within safe zones be protected from harm by all perpetrators (including by Russian fighter-bombers and U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria, or by indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes in Yemen)?
  8. Which countries will provide the military forces for the many tasks required to enforce the safe zones (suppression of enemy air defenses, logistical support, combat search and rescue, etc.)?
  9. Which groups or states will provide humanitarian assistance and be allowed access to those residing in the safe zones?
  10. Critically, who provides the ground forces to enforce and patrol the safe zones?
  11. Which nearby countries will allow safe zone forces basing and overflight rights, and for which missions specifically?
  12. Who has ultimate command authority for however many countries contribute forces?
  13. What military doctrine and rules of engagement will guide those forces enforcing the safe zones?
  14. Will force be used to prohibit arms groups from using the safe zones to shield their activities or recruit fighters, as they inevitably will try to do?
  15. Who pays, and for how long?

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by FlyoverCountry

    This 15-question drill, nice and concise, makes it obvious that
    so-called “safe zones” unworkable within either Syria or Yemen.

  • Posted by Savannah

    Why don’t they make the entire area a safe zone?

  • Posted by Shoshana Bryen

    Number 8 is the killer (excuse me) point. A safe zone is a military creation and requires military control. Now that the Russians have serious air defenses in Syria, will they permit the US or Turkey or anyone else to have overflight rights? What if they don’t agree to a safe zone at all? Will the US create it unilaterally (militarily) and enforce it unilaterally (militarily)? That puts us across the muzzle of the gun from Russia. Are we prepared to fight Russia/Syria/Iran to provide safe space for Syrian refugees who may or may not include rebels and jihadists? Don’t think so.

  • Posted by Mike

    Discounting the obvious expression of so called American exceptionalism, question#3 above is the only pertinent one which pertains to the international legality of Amerca’s actions. The answer is simple; America’s actions in Syria are illegal in international law, and so would be the setting up of a no-fly zone. Apart from being illegal, this discredited idea is totally impractical, an item from thr H.Clinton era that poses under the guise of humanitarian aid, while in fact attempts to impose de facto partition on the country. Safe zones, in any case, already exist, they are the areas controlled by the Syrian government and their allies.

  • Posted by Matt

    How are these safe areas going to differ from the refugee camps already situated in Turkey or Jordan and how does Trump expect to detain displaced people in these areas from where they technically become economic migrants? We, the international community should concentrate on providing sufficient resource to those countries which are the first safe refuge to deal with the influx and to provide proper amenities.

  • Posted by Schako ozmx

    Suppprting what so called Syrian opp. Is not wise and is actually mean supporting the Muslim BrotherHood who are in bed with Wahabi

  • Posted by Craig A. Joel

    Why don’t we just let Russia, Turkey, Iran and, oh yeah, Syria take care of it now? What could possibly be the upside for the U.S. to get involved to this extent now? Would we really be able to help anyone at this point?

  • Posted by KC

    Notwithstanding current immigration legislation, here’s a cursory survey of our options. It appears we have 3:(1) Alongside our Allies and regional partners we could deploy thousands of peacekeeping troops in/around Syria to keep ‘safe zones’ protected — inside and out — from ISIS, AQ, etc; (2) We could partner to find a third party country to act — under a UN mandate — as a transitional and temporary host for refugees; Or (3) we could put serious thought into creating innovative solutions to what could be considered “next generation ‘safe zones'” on our own turf where we have better control of external threats.

    With COA 3, the concept could be “Refugee Rescue Recovery and Repatriation(R4)” In other words, refugees would come here TEMPORARILY with no guarantee of remaining, but would be removed from theater to preclude exploitation by parties looking to prey upon their vulnerabilities — and those protecting them.

    Using domestic resources (in close coordination with DHS, DOS, DOD, DHHS, IC, and DoJ) to transport, in-process, vet, care for, feed, educate, train and re-integrate (and in some cases deport), we could develop a homegrown capability that could both relieve human suffering and the socio-economic stress on our Allies.

    And lastly, this new approach could help cultivate here at home a heightened sense of service to our Nation and to the international community – and maybe even give impetus to redefining “National Service.”

    Just thinking out loud…

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