Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania that the situation in Syria is “so sad, and we’re going to help people.” He told the crowd that he would make the Gulf States assist, echoing a promise he made on the campaign trail.
Last month at a rally in Tennessee he also brought up safe zones, saying, “What I like is build a safe zone in Syria [sic]. Build a big beautiful safe zone. And you have whatever it is so people can live.”
Hillary Clinton also campaigned on establishing safe zones in Syria, something the Obama Administration has not been interested in. In April, President Obama said, “As a practical matter, sadly, it is very difficult to see how it would operate short of us being willing to militarily take over a chunk of that country.”
Trump had said he would deploy as many as 30,000 American troops before, but his Syria strategy, like much of his proposed policy, has not been consistent. In June 2015, Trump told Fox News “maybe Syria should be a free zone for ISIS, let them fight and then you pick up the remnants.”
It would take a significant force to protect these proposed safe zones. During the Bosnian War, the United Nations established safe zones for Muslims but only deployed lightly-armed and legally-restricted peace keeping troops to protect them.
“American Special Operations Forces were chased out of the Syrian town of al-Ray by US-backed Free Syrian Army militias to cries of ‘Pigs!’ and ‘Crusaders!'”
As a result, Serbian forces repeatedly attacked and eventually captured the safe zones. At one safe zone in Srebrenica, strict rules of engagement prevented UN peacekeepers from taking action as nearly the entire male population of the town was massacred.
Gathering mostly Sunni refugees from Aleppo into safe zones creates an opportune target for Assad-backed forces for easy extermination. Indeed, Assad may have foreshadowed his intentions earlier this year when the Kamuna refugee camp in Northern Syria was bombed in May, killing more than 30 people.
Additionally, Russian warplanes bombed a UN aid convoy last September in then-opposition controlled territory near Aleppo and subsequently denied it. Russia insisted no airstrike occurred, despite video evidence proving otherwise.
These precedents prove that Assad and/or Russia is not above purposely attacking defenseless civilians. Thus, for American-created safe zones to work, they would need to be heavily defended with a significant troop presence. Both air and ground elements would be required to protect refugees from Russia and Assad’s combined forces.
Trump has used the 30,000 troop figure before in reference to fighting Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS and ISIL), but the Pentagon estimated that it might take 30,000 troops just to protect safe zones. Even if some of those troops are provided by coalition partners such as the Gulf States, that does not leave many troops to fight IS.
Currently there are roughly 5,000 troops in Iraq and another 500 in Syria supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led campaign against IS. Trump has described the operation as “a total disaster.”
But more troops in Syria may not be welcomed. In September, American Special Operations Forces were chased out of the Syrian town of al-Ray by US-backed Free Syrian Army militias to cries of “Pigs!” and “Crusaders!” The US-backed forces claimed that the presence of ground troops signaled a military occupation of Syria.
If the US’s own proxy army does not want US ground forces in Syria, deploying 30,000 troops to protect safe zones is a recipe for disaster. During the Iraqi occupation, Shiites liberated by American forces quickly began a five-year long insurgency against them.
Trump has claimed that he will make “rich Gulf States” contribute to the safe zones, but the United Arab Emirates and Qatar has a combined military force of less than 90,000 troops. Saudi Arabia is currently embroiled in a war in Yemen to the tune of 150,000 troops, so it seems unlikely they will be able to commit many soldiers without significant incentive from Trump.
It is unclear whether he is as informed as one might expect a president-elect would be on the situation in Syria. Since being elected, he has refused daily intelligence briefings, insisting he does not need them because “I’m, like, a smart person.”