Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates voiced support for President Donald Trump's idea to establish safe zones in Syria, which comes as no surprise given it would boost Sunni extremists who want to topple President Bashar Assad's secular regime. The White House, for its part, wants to bottle up refugees inside Syria to prevent Muslim blockade runners from reaching U.S. shores. However, instituting safe zones would require a costly military intervention and risks empowering the very jihadist forces Trump has vowed to defeat.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabian King Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammad in separate phone calls with Trump agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen to help refugees "displaced by the ongoing conflicts," the White House said in a press release.
The conversations come in the wake of a White House executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, the original draft of which directed the Defense Department to begin devising blueprints for Syrian safe zones. Last week, Trump told ABC News that he would "absolutely do safe zones in Syria," echoing sentiments he expressed on the campaign trail.
Yet the final version of said executive order excluded the safe zone provision, probably to the chagrin of Al Qaeda in Syria and like-minded militants. But now it appears Trump only suspended the decision, perhaps calculating that he better get buy-in from stakeholders in the region before embarking on the initiative.
Consequences not too difficult to foresee inimical to U.S. national security interests far outweigh any conceivable benefits of instituting in Syria a single so-called safe zone, a euphemism for a no-fly zone - itself a de facto declaration of war. The Pentagon estimates it would require 30,000 boots on the ground and cost $1 billion per month to implement. Moreover, a no-fly zone, which entails establishing air supremacy over the safe areas, risks sparking a direct confrontation with Syrian and Russian forces operating in the region.
Safe zones also tend to attract jihadists who can target swarms of enclosed refugees, akin to shooting fish in a barrel. In fact, these types of arrangements, studies have shown, often become terrorist breeding grounds, as Joshua Hampson from the Niskanen Center think tank argued, especially if the camps are not adequately supported or are poorly run.
Because of squalid conditions and lack of economic prospects, safe zone residents are often susceptible to radicalization and upon returning home "may carry the seeds of the next generation of terrorists." They could also serve as willing recruits for extremist groups to join the jihad against the Assad regime.
Trump would ironically adopt the exact same no-fly zone policy Hillary Clinton was rightly ridiculed for during one of their debates, and would align himself with liberal humanitarian interventionists who want to save Syrian civilians by bombing them.
It also runs counter to candidate Trump's vows to oppose U.S. military adventurism, such as the oft-cited intervention to topple Gaddafi, which drove Libya into a destabilizing tailspin and afforded the Islamic State the chance to gain a foothold in the country. Trump appealed to many voters for eschewing such unnecessary excursions while Clinton was framed as the imperialist nation-building candidate, as some observers have noted.
"Whatever Trump voters thought they were getting by supporting him, I'm reasonably sure sending tens of thousands of Americans to occupy parts of Syria for years to come wasn't it," Daniel Larsen wrote in the American Conservative.
Trump, however, will have to resist the neocons among his advisors and the Sunni extremist government in Ankara which would love nothing more than to use safe zones to pave the road for effecting regime change in Damascus. One can expect Turkey to welcome Trump's proposal with open arms. Former national security advisor for former President Bill Clinton, Gwenyth Todd, warned this author that Trump could fall into the same trap as his predecessor.
"Trump will face the same risk of treachery from his inner circle as Obama did," Todd said in an interview shortly after the November presidential election. "Trump does not know whom he can trust on foreign policy and who among his growing entourage is on the payroll of expansionist regional leaders like Turkish President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan."
The answer to addressing the root cause of the refugee crisis requires a radical departure from Washington orthodoxy, a paradigm shift many hoped Trump would embrace along with his pragmatic-minded Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who perhaps still has time to influence White House strategy. Tillerson might be able to rein in Trump, who seems obsessed with setting a record for fulfilling campaign promises within his first couple weeks in office.
The answer lies, not in safe zones, but in abandoning support for the not-so-moderate opposition and working with the Russian and Syrian governments to defeat terrorists - it's really that simple. Despite the virtue of being deeply-rooted in logic, however, because it so affronts the U.S. foreign policy establishment's ideological sensibilities, less a dramatic sea change in outlook or course correction by Trump, such a policy might be practically unthinkable - at least within Washington's corridors of power.