Without Significant Troop Commitment, Trump’s Syrian Safe Zones Will Not Be Safe

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Kamuna refugee camp in Syria after being bombed (Getty/Andolu Agency photo)

President-Elect Donald Trump announced on Thursday that he will establish “safe zones” in Syria, the second time he has mentioned such a plan since being elected.

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.”

Canada’s Train and Equip Mission in Iraq Turns Offensive (Like Always)

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Canadian special operations forces scan the horizon (Canadian Armed Forces photo)

Canadian special forces in Northern Iraq are performing offensive operations against Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) according to Canadian military officials. Lt. Col. Stephen Hunter, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), told reporters on Monday that Canadian troops have sometimes shot first in engagements with IS when Kurdish forces were not present.

“Because they have demonstrated hostile intent, we’re able, through our rules of engagement, to use our own weapons systems to engage that kind of threat,” said Hunter. This sort of preventive attack in the name of self-defense is the same justification U.S. forces use in Afghanistan to attack the Taliban two years after “combat operations” ended.

But the revelation that Canadian soldiers are attacking IS is significant because Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau supposedly ended combat operations in Syria last March. He announced the Canada would suspend its bombing operations and instead focus on training and defending allied forces—namely the Kurds.

Canada, like the U.S., is succumbing to mission creep—even with a left-leaning Prime Minister who vowed to take Canadians out of combat. Similarly, what started as a deployment of an extra 275 personnel to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as IS quickly took territory in Iraq has become well over 5,000 in both Iraq and Syria.

It is important to identify that the idea that U.S. and Canadian forces can engage in offensive operations under the authority of self defense is doublespeak. A similar blurring of the meanings of words occurred when former President George W. Bush used the concept of preemptive war to embroil the U.S. in Iraq from which now the American government seems unable to disentangle itself.

The American and Canadian examples show that it is not only the Russian government that utilizes their military overtly while saying they are not (as they did during the annexation of Crimea and are doing in Syria). We must hold our governments accountable when they tell us one thing and do another.

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Canadian Joint Task Force 2 assault demonstration (Patrick Cardinal photo)

It is more important now more than ever as the Trump Administration prepares to move into the White House heralding an era many have coined as “post-truth“. Liberals in American society allowed President Obama to do things they found unsavory, like expanded surveillance, extra-judicial killing, and re-intervening in Iraq because they trusted him. Likewise, conservatives are already turning blind eye to President-elect Trump’s admission of intention to break campaign promises.

Interestingly, public support of the war against IS is rising. Recent polls have suggested that Canadians are overwhelmingly in favor of utilizing ground troops against IS while American opinion is mixed but growing. With the support of their citizens, one wonders why the governments of Canada and the U.S. use doublespeak regarding their military operations.

It appears that in a (debatable) post-Cold War world, it is not just the Russians embracing deception operations. We as a people must decide whether we find this in accordance with our democratic values. Malcolm X said, “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified U.S. forces as Canadians

A Post-Syria Middle East

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Update: The Department of Defense’s Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson answered a direct question about Rmeilan Airfield on Reddit, tacitly acknowledging that it is being used by special operations forces:

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A recent article about a purported American deal to use an airbase in Syria to support operations against Islamic State (IS) struck me as odd. It was not that the United States was further establishing a military presence in the war-torn Middle East — let’s face it, it is 2016 and this the norm — but rather who the agreement was made with: the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG, whom I have written about before (specifically their capacity to recruit American volunteer fighters), have controlled the territory in northeast Syria where Rmeilan airfield is located for over two years. If the claim that the Americans are using the airfield is true (a spokesman for United States Central Command has denied it, despite some evidence to the contrary), this represents a significant step in the end of the state we know to be Syria.

What is a state?

To discuss this concept, the state must be defined. The classical definition of the state in the field of international relations usually starts with sociologist Max Weber, who wrote in 1919 that the state is a “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

Additionally, the declarative theory of statehood adds that a state must have:

  1. Defined territory
  2. Permanent population
  3. Government
  4. Ability to enter into relations with other states, or thus be recognized by other states
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Sociologist Max Weber dropping some knowledge, 1917 (Wikipedia Commons photo)

When we combine these two definitions, it is apparent that Syria is struggling as a state — particularly when it comes to the monopoly on violence and defined territory.  But what makes the question of Syria as a state interesting is the other actors that have popped up inside what was once Syrian sovereign territory and how they have started to check the boxes for statehood. Prominently, groups like the YPG and IS are beginning to look like states.

Kurds and the Rojava state

The YPG controls most of northern Syria along the Turkish border. In the Weberian sense, the YPG looks like a state — they have successfully monopolized the legitimate use of violence within their territory. Though there has been active warfare over the last two years or so, in the opinion of the permanent population of Kurds that live there, it is for the most part the YPG who are the legitimate doorkeepers to the use of violence (not, for example, Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra).

Vehicles pass a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) checkpoint in Tell Tamer town in Hasaka

Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) checkpoint in Syria, November 30, 2013. The sign reads “YPG in every place, YPG eyes do not sleep”. (REUTERS/Rodi Said photo)

However, a monopoly on violence and territory are not the only requirements. The YPG’s Kurdistan must also have a government. In fact, the YPG has established a government: an autonomous area called “Rojava” (West in Kurdish) with four established cantons and a democratic constitution.

The last and most crucial ingredient to statehood is the ability to enter relations with other states. Therefore, if the YPG has made an agreement with the US government to allow the use of an airfield, then Rojava has made an important step toward an eventual statehood.

Islamic Statehood in Iraq and al-Sham

But if the YPG are fulfilling some of the requirements to being recognized as a state, what about IS? After all, “state” is right in their name (by design!) Well, despite the name, there are many who would argue that Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. As the former would require another post (or book) entirely, I will only be focusing on the “state” aspect.

“Islamic State reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.”

IS has been effective in brutally enforcing the monopolization of violence. On the one hand IS must continue to fight and win to attract foreign fighters, thus as long as they continue to win, they can claim legitimacy in the simplest “might makes right” terms. But while immigrants to Islamic State-held territory are pre-convinced of IS sovereignty, surely not all of their permanent population recognizes IS’s legitimate violence monopoly.

In this case, I do not think that some contention from their population delegitimizes the claim of statehood. After all, in the United States, an armed militia recently occupied federal lands. In response the FBI shot and killed one of the militiamen and arrested the others. By winning and eliminating the troublemakers, the US retains its legitimate monopoly of violence. IS reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The ability of IS to actually govern has been widely covered. Much like Hizbullah or Hamas, IS does provide services to its population via bureaucratic institutions. But what about the most important element to statehood? Officially, IS is not recognized by any other state. IS can call itself a state all it wants, but until another state acknowledges them as one, they are not in the club. This is not for lack of trying, however. In a recent video, IS recognized Taiwan — perhaps hoping to get a return scratch on the back.

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Islamic State literally destroying the border between Iraq and Syria in a figurative gesture (IS social media photo)

Curiously, a major source of IS revenue is oil sales. Yet if no state has recognized IS, then who is buying their oil? (Assad, actually, among others.) This implies that IS does actually have some sort of de facto recognition from the international community and demonstrates that they do have some ability to enter in relations with other states. For the time being, it appears they can only do so discreetly.

The end of the Syrian state

While the YPG’s Rojava and Islamic State cannot be considered full-fledged states yet, they are certainly on their way. The current state of their existence has delegitimized Syria to a point that the Syria we knew before 2011 has ceased to exist — probably forever. We have seen that various actors in Syria have started to fit the classical definition of the state: monopolizing violence, controlling territory, having a population, and governing. As the global community begins or continues to enter into relations with these actors, new states may form and we will have finally stepped fully into a post-Syria Middle East.


Update: I did eventually write another post on how Islamic IS is. You can read it here.