In his telephone discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabian King Salman last weekend, President Trump reportedly raised a plan for the creation of safe zones to protect vulnerable Syrian populations. Both Russia and Saudi Arabia have said that they could support Trump's plan, but what these safe zones will be in practice remains a mystery.
The idea of safe zones to protect the civilian population in Syria has long been under discussion and has been called for at different times by U.S. political leaders from both parties. The geopolitics are different under the Trump administration. President Trump has made clear his intention to have a good relationship with Russia and has asserted that they have common interests in fighting against terrorism. Meeting in Astana, on January 24, Russia, Iran and Turkey announced an agreement to establish a cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria.
Previous agreements fell apart in the absence of effective agreed-upon monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Russia was negotiating while actively engaging in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the indiscriminate bombardment of densely populated civilian areas, like eastern Aleppo, and the targeting of hospitals and even humanitarian aid convoys. These brutal tactics strengthened extremist elements of the opposition at the expense of the more moderate groups the United States has tried to support.
If Russia is now genuinely interested in pursuing its objectives in Syria in ways other than the use of illegal military force, then the United States should certainly explore cooperation that could lead to more robust protection of the civilian population and an eventual end to the devastating conflict. However, the United States should be cautious that cooperation with Russia in Syria does not create more problems than it resolves and prove counterproductive to U.S. interests and the Trump administration's stated policy priorities.
The Assad government and its allies' tactics have alienated large portions of the Syrian population, especially in the majority Sunni Muslim community. A continuation of Assad's repressive, increasingly sectarian regime will drive more Syrians into support for the violent extremist terrorist groups. The suffering of the Sunni Muslim population under Assad has been a recruiting aid for ISIS worldwide.
Too close an alignment with Russia in Syria risks the United States being seen as an active protector of the Assad regime, rather than just the passive enabler it was seen as under the Obama administration. This will only fuel further resentment of the United States in the Sunni Muslim world.
President Trump has said that he has "tremendous feeling for the people involved in the horrific humanitarian crisis in Syria." He has a funny way of showing it. Banning all Syrians from entry to the United States for an indefinite period only exacerbates the suffering of the millions of Syrians displaced from their homes, and compounds the problems faced by countries bordering Syria--including several key U.S. allies--which are coping with the influx of people fleeing the conflict.
If Russia and the United States can agree on the creation of safe zones, then it is conceivable that monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to protect them could be created through the UN Security Council, overcoming one of the stumbling blocks to U.S. action, but that still leaves many unanswered questions.
* Will the United States deploy its own forces to help monitor safe zones and deter those who might violate it?
* If it does so, will the administration seek and obtain authorization from Congress for this use of force that would place U.S. forces closer to harm than they have been to date in the Syria conflict?
* If the United States does not deploy its own forces, or NATO forces, how can it prevent Russia and Iran, the most powerful forces on the ground in Syria, from infiltrating these zones, making them unsafe in the eyes of many Syrian civilians they are ostensibly designed to protect?
An even more complex set of issues arises in the north of Syria along the Turkish border where U.S. special forces are assisting opposition efforts to capture the ISIS capital, Raqqa--a vital step in the fight against ISIS. The United States' principal allies in the fight are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by Kurdish People's Protection Units. NATO ally Turkey is deeply suspicious of US support for Kurdish forces in Syria, which it says are too close to the PKK, an armed Kurdish opposition group in Turkey listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. It will take skillful diplomacy to maintain Turkish acquiescence to Syrian Kurdish forces playing their indispensable role in the battle for Raqqa. The territory liberated from ISIS on the Turkish border could eventually become a safe zone for Syrian civilians, easing the burden on Turkey, which hosts around 2.7 million Syrian refugees. For this to happen, the United States will have to mediate Turkish-Kurdish tensions and ensure that the SDF force that liberates and then governs Raqqa has a sufficiently Arab makeup to satisfy the predominantly Arab population of Raqqa. A further concern is the attitude of the Syrian government to the proposed safe zones. The Syrian government has stated that any safe zones would need approval from the Assad regime, or would be viewed as violations of Syrian sovereignty and subject to attack. The question arises: what will the United States do to deter the Assad regime from attacking civilians in safe zones, and will Russia cooperate in reining in its ally?
Underlying the new administration's efforts to ease the Syria crisis is the reality that the Assad regime and its Russian allies are implicated in serious war crimes and crimes against humanity. Not only has the Assad regime repeatedly starved and indiscriminately bombed civilians, it has also detained tens of thousands and subjected prisoners to torture and brutal treatment. The United States cannot just do a deal with Russia and the Assad regime and overlook the crimes of the past. This will not be acceptable to the Syrian opposition, nor to many key American allies in the Middle East. It will not bring peace in Syria or the broader region.
Stabilizing Syria ultimately depends on a diplomatic negotiation involving all parties to the Syria conflict and leading to a political transition resulting in the removal, or at least the substantial diminution of power, of the Assad ruling clique. It is far from clear that Russia would be prepared to make this concession, having already invested in shoring up Assad's rule, and given its conviction, which it shares with authoritarian rulers in Cairo and Riyadh, that popular uprisings must never be allowed to overthrow repressive authoritarian rule.
President Trump may believe that he can achieve stability, and make progress in the fight against ISIS by establishing a modus-vivendi with Assad, fitting his regime into a regional system of authoritarian rulers in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. This is a frightening prospect. Authoritarian rulers in the Middle East have failed to bring stability or decent governance to their people for decades and the region has become a source of instability and violent extremism that have plagued successive U.S. administrations since Carter.
In Syria, as elsewhere in the world, to succeed in countering threats to the United States like ISIS and al-Qa'eda, the United States must be prepared to uphold universal values, international law, and a rules-based international system.