On track? Syrians wave at passengers riding a train across Aleppo's devastated eastern districts for the first time in more than four years, on January 25. Photo: AFP
On track? Syrians wave at passengers riding a train across Aleppo's devastated eastern districts for the first time in more than four years, on January 25. Photo: AFP

With new US President Donald Trump angling to establish “safe zones” in Syria, the question on the nature of the US’ military engagement in Syria has gained fresh significance.

While the president had earlier clearly expressed his intention, before moving into the White House, to co-operate with Russia and Syria to defeat the Islamic State, the “Safe Zone” strategy may put him on a collision course with them. This would be the most probable outcome if the Trump administration follows the Obama administration in in its footsteps.

That is to say, were the Trump administration to continue to support proxy militias, this would add a lot of complexity to the crisis and give air to the bad political atmosphere currently prevailing between Russia and the US. Hence, the question on the nature of military engagement and the objectives to be achieved thereafter.

According to the executive order signed by Trump, “the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense, 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 in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement.”

Is it a recipe of war-escalation or resolution of it? It is hard imagining Russia, Iran and Syria going along with this plan if it is made into yet another scheme of “regime change.”

Already, Russia has expressed its surprise over this order. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was not informed about Trump’s plan. He’s acting unilaterally or in cahoots with NATO and regional partners – violating Syrian sovereignty if instituted, lessening chances for conflict resolution. Peskov warned about possible consequences of this action, saying it’s important not to “exacerbate the situation.”

Clearly, Russia is perturbed by this development and sees in it the potential to undo the gains it has made during the transition period in the US.

Reversing old tactics?

One of the key questions that has been left unaddressed at this stage is who will enforce these “safe zones” in Syria?  Will the US send its own troops or will it utilize other “ground resources” in Syria?

While the Trump administration is reportedly considering sending more troops to Syria, this might be understood as a violation of Syrian sovereignty—something that both Russia and Syria aren’t ready to accept.

The US military officials have long acknowledged that the US could more quickly defeat ISIS by using its own forces, instead of local fighters, on the battlefield. But victory, many US military officials have argued, would come at the expense of more US lives, thus leaving the Trump administration in pretty much the same conundrum as the Obama administration.

On the other hand, were the US to continue to rely on proxy militias, it will further complicate the scenario in Syria that has just started to move towards partial resolution. A US decision to use local forces would undo the Russia-Turkey brokered ceasefire and cause the war to re-escalate and even spread territorially.

More importantly, it will force all the parties to revisit the question of who should be considered a terror group and who might be a “moderate”, taking the whole situation back to the square one.

On the contrary, were the US to send its own troops or increase its air-strikes, it might help resolve, once and for all, the conflict over which groups(s) should be on the hit-list and which not, allowing all the actors to focus on their commonly declared enemy: the self-styled Islamic State.

Trump’s “silence” on Russia

However, the key question is how this is actually done. Will the US do this in co-operation with Russia or operate independently?

As far as the question operating independently is concerned, former Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey warned about greater US intervention in Syria, including the perils of establishing safe and no-fly zones, saying it could involve thousands of US troops.

Costs could run “in the billions.” The plan requires “hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications.”

Dempsey estimated over US$1 billion a month in cost, explaining around 70,000 US troops would be needed, warning further that the entire scheme could backfire and greater regional conflict could follow, turning a bad situation into potential disaster.

Trump administration seems to be aware of these perils and is keeping other options, including that of forming new alliances, open.

According to the executive order, the experts are to recommend any changes needed to make in the US rules of engagement. More importantly, they are also to identify new coalition partners (Russia and Syria?) and to suggest mechanisms for choking off IS’ funding sources.

That the Trump administration might revisit the US’ current position on Syria and Russia is evident from the “silence” Trump has so far maintained over his future policies towards Russia.

As such, while Theresa May was quick to pass strong comments on Russia during their joint press conference, Trump observed a meaningful silence over the subject, avoided giving details of his policy and reserved his statement to the fact that he was still  in the early stages of considering whether to lift US sanctions on Russia. The remark came at a time when a number of US allies have voiced concerns that such a move would be ‘premature.’

“As far as the sanctions, (it is) very early to be talking about that,” Trump said, while insisting that he wanted to follow through on his campaign pledge to pursue better relations with Russia.

There is, as such, a clear space available within the Trump administration’s policy framework to engage with Russia (read: “identify new coalition partners”) in Syria to defeat the Islamic State—an objective that Trump had spoken about at length during his election campaign.

While we are yet to see which new coalition partners are eventually identified and how the revised “safe zone” strategy is integrated with the policies of the new allies, Trump’s general outlook on Syria and terrorism is seemingly auguring a viable alternative to the Obama administration’s failed strategy of supporting and funding proxy groups to topple Assad.

Salman Rafi

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

3 replies on “Trump revamped the Syria ‘safe zone’ strategy. Now what?”

Comments are closed.