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.”

The GOP Candidates’ Plans for Beating Islamic State Range from Contradictory to Absurd

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Presidential candidate Ted Cruz wants to “carpet bomb” Islamic State (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons photo)

The Republican candidates for president have said some provocative things about battling Islamic State (IS — also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), yet none have mapped out a plan quite as detailed as Hillary Clinton’s, which I wrote about, along with Sanders’, last month. With four Republican primaries today and another 25 to go, the remaining candidates have outlined their strategies as such:

Ted Cruz

Goal: Defeat IS while allowing the Syrian civil war play out and reserving American ground forces as a last resort

How? Cruz famously said that he would “carpet bomb” IS, but later revealed he did not know what the term meant when he elaborated — essentially describing standard close air support within the framework of legal air strikes. He has also said he wants to “bomb ISIS back to the stone age,” but this seems more like blustery talk and less like a new form of hyper-anti-counterinsurgency policy. Cruz wants to:

  • Arm the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq to defeat IS in both Iraq and Syria
  • Avoid population-centric counterinsurgency and state building in Syria
  • Focus on Iraq, not Syria, and avoid resolving the Syrian civil war

It is clear that Cruz does not want American forces to do more than bomb IS. Ironically, for someone saying Obama is not doing enough, his plan is less involved than the Obama Administration’s. He speaks of using the Peshmerga as a ground force in Iraq, but they have not and will not fight for traditionally Arab areas. It is unlikely that Cruz could defeat IS using the meager plan he has described so far. On his campaign website, his IS strategy is tellingly limited to “calling the enemy by its name – radical Islamic terrorism – and securing the border. Border security is national security.”

John Kasich

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John Kasich wants American troops in Syria now (YouTube/New America photo)

Goal: “Wipe out, degrade, and destroy” Islamic State with an American-led coalition of European and Middle Eastern allies sooner rather than later, without using American forces against Assad

How? Kasich said he wants to:

  • Utilize American, European, and Middle Eastern ground forces
  • Arm moderate rebels in Syria
  • Arm Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish militias
  • Create and enforce no-fly zones in Syria
  • Encourage regional allies to take in refugees

Kasich’s plan is firmly in the interventionist camp, but he also knows that military action alone will not defeat Islamic State. While he once called for the creation of an agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values”, he later walked back this statement, instead suggesting to “breathe life”  into Voice of America, a US-government funded news organization broadcast around the world.

However, his vision of a broad military coalition including American ground forces and no-fly zones, while not taking action to depose Assad is non-sensical. Enforcing no-fly zones in Syria means shooting down Syrian and Russian aircraft should they encroach on this hypothetical airspace. In that event, it would be very unlikely that American ground forces could avoid combat with the Syrian Arab Army.

Marco Rubio

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Rubio sees the world through the eyes of an early 2000s Neocon (Gage Skidmore photo)

Goal: The US-led defeat of IS in a post-Assad Syria as part of a larger zero-sum “clash of civilizations”

How? Rubio’s plan is neatly outlined in bullet points on his campaign website, though most of “his” plan is already being implemented by the Obama Administration. The significant policy changes he would like to pursue are:

  • Utilize American and coalition ground forces in Syria and Iraq
  • Expand air campaign and deploy American forward observers to direct airstrikes in Syria and Iraq
  • Increase training of rebels in Syria to fight Assad
  • Form safe zones in Syria
  • Directly arm Sunni and Kurdish militias in Iraq
  • Increase military action against Islamic State in Libya and Afghanistan
  • Bar entry of Iraqi and Syrian refugees into the United States

Rubio proposes the most military action of any candidate. Like the Democratic candidates, he prefers regime change in Syria. Like Hillary Clinton, he proposes safe zones, but without adequate troop commitment safe areas become the opposite.

He has called for American ground forces embedded with coalition forces, but despite his bravado and “them or us”, “fight them here or there” world view, has not offered that he would deploy American infantry battalions to fight in any country. Most worrying about Rubio’s plan is his insistence on describing the fight against IS as a clash of civilizations:

“For [Islamic State and other jihadist groups] do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East, they hate us because of our values. They hate us because young girls here go to school. They hate us because women drive. They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we are a tolerant society. . .This is a clash of civilizations and either they win, or we win.”

If 9/11 and the Global War on Terrorism should have taught us anything, it is that the above quote is nonsense. Rubio is still attempting to paint the world as the Bush Administration and other Neoconservatives saw it in the early 2000s. Jihadist groups including al-Qaida and IS have told us themselves that they attack the United States because of realist security issues, not abstract cultural differences — there is not much of a mystery there.

Donald Trump

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Donald Trump wants to give Syria to Exxon and torture people (Michael Vadon photo)

Goal: Donald Trump’s envisioned end state in Iraq and Syria is unclear. If any candidate has said more senseless things about the Middle East than former candidate Ben Carson, it is Trump. Trump wants to defeat Islamic State — that much is clear.

How? Before Trump was an official candidate, he hinted at knowing a “foolproof” plan to defeat IS, but as of yet still has not enlightened us. Interestingly, in that same interview he suggested talks with IS, but a peaceful resolution has not been brought up since. Instead, he has said he wants to:

  • Expand legal authority to torture
  • Ban Muslims from entering the United States
  • Allow Assad and Russia to continue fighting IS in Syria while the US fights them in Iraq
  • Use airstrikes and ground forces to seize IS-controlled oil fields and take the oil for the US

Essentially Trump’s plan so far is three-pronged: bomb them, send in ground forces, take their oil fields. He has said it is important for the US to avoid fighting two wars at once, because it cannot win. While the last decade and a half in the greater Middle East might support his theory, it is important also to realize that wars are not what you want them to be, they are what they are. Simply because he might choose not to fight Assad does not mean Assad will not fight the US directly or via proxy, especially when his oil fields are occupied by American troops and Exxon.

It is also necessary to stress that there is no research that suggests that Trump’s plan to expand the legal authority to torture IS fighters and his suggestion that their families might also be legal targets would hasten an IS defeat. IS has partly risen in response to US torture. Indeed, IS prisoners wear orange jumpsuits to mimic Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay prisoners and treatment of prisoners by Americans is frequently mentioned in IS propaganda videos.

As the French learned in the Algerian War, torture is not only counterproductive, it also “corrupts the the torturer as much as it breaks the victim.”  A quote from a French paratrooper in Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 shows the suffering of the torturer himself:

“‘All day, through the floor-boards, we heard their hoarse cries, like those of animals being slowly put to death. Sometimes I think I can still hear them. . . . All these men disappeared. . . .’ Gradually, ‘I felt myself becoming contaminated. What was more serious, I felt that the horror of all these crimes, our everyday battle, was losing force daily in my mind.’ Going on a month’s leave to Paris was like a deep breath of fresh air, and sufficient ‘to make me forget the suffering throughout poor Algeria. I felt ashamed. Ashamed of having been so happy.’”

For someone who supposedly has made veterans’ issues a high priority, he might consider  more deeply the lasting effects of war on those who serve.