There’s just no way to protect innocent lives without putting professional militaries into the fight.
- By Fred HofFrederic C. Hof, director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special advisor for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.
President Donald Trump says he wants “safe zones” in Syria. His intent is to keep displaced people, who might otherwise be inclined to join the nearly 5 million Syrian refugees, within their country. What might he be able to achieve?
The first thing a new president should know is that a safe zone must entail robust protection by both ground and air forces. This is what distinguishes it from a killing zone.
Over the nearly six years of conflict in Syria, there have been many calls for no-fly zones. They have studiously avoided discussing who would defend the zone on the ground, as if civilians could be protected from 30,000 feet. Indeed, the ground protection question acted as a conversation-stopper in discussions of how to shield Syrian civilians from a homicidal regime.
In Syria today, there are at least three active conflict areas that might lend themselves to being transformed into safe zones. The Islamic State currently occupies areas of central and eastern Syria; part of the Euphrates River Valley, north of Aleppo, where Turkish soldiers and Free Syrian Army rebel forces are closing in on the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab; and in northwestern Idlib province, where al Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is still a major force.
The presumed forthcoming military defeat of the Islamic State, if handled properly, could produce the mother of all safe zones — one stretching from the Euphrates River to Iraq. But proper handling requires a major strategy shift by Washington. The ground force currently battling the Islamic State is the Kurdish YPG, the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. The YPG and some Arab auxiliaries, under the name “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), are slated to enter the Islamic State’s “capital” of Raqqa, an Arab city.
Fighting in urban areas is not, however, a job for lightly trained militiamen. It requires the specialized skills that are the calling card of first-world militaries — skills that minimize casualties both for the entering force and for the civilian population.
A professional ground force coalition-of-the-willing led by the United States is something this writer has been long urging. This would involve American combat skin-in-the-game along with ground forces from countries such as Turkey, Jordan, France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. The final three on the list have already volunteered forces to fight the Islamic State; recruiting the others would require hard-nosed diplomacy. But if the Islamic State is the threat the Trump administration says it is — and the people of Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, and Ankara, who have all suffered terror attacks at its hands, would agree — why would its neutralization be left to militiamen?
In addition to putting the military defeat of the Islamic State in the hands of military professionals, the Pentagon’s plan for northern Syria must take several other factors into account. The military campaign should cover all of eastern Syria (not just Raqqa), eliminating the Islamic State in Deir Ezzor and all of Syria. A post-combat stabilization plan establishing local governance is absolutely essential. It can draw on Syrian local councils that have been forced underground by the Islamic State, the Syrian nationalist opposition, Syrian civil servants, and the SDF in its own localities. Finally, the forces that defeat the Islamic State must plan for sustained ground and air force protection for the liberated areas.
This isn’t simply a matter of defeating the Islamic State. Converting central and eastern Syria from “caliphate” to safe zone means keeping President Bashar al-Assad’s forces out. Permitting a murderously corrupt regime to replace the Islamic State would simply set the stage for the jihadi group’s resurgence, which will eventually lead to a stampede of Syrian civilians heading to Turkey and Iraq.
The area from which the Islamic State is being attacked by Turkey in the Euphrates River Valley might also become a safe zone. Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies are experiencing difficulty ousting the terror group from al-Bab, a large Sunni Arab town northeast of Aleppo. But assuming al-Bab is eventually taken, the Islamic State will have been cleared from a sizable pocket extending south from the Turkish border. An effective safe zone, however, will require a sustained and significant Turkish ground force presence and air cover, supplemented by nationalist Syrian rebels willing to fight all comers: Shiite militias, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Assad.
In Idlib province, Russian President Vladimir Putin could play a crucial role in the establishment of a safe zone — if he is willing and able. If Russia can help neutralize undisciplined, Iranian-led Shiite militiamen while enforcing a genuine cessation of hostilities in northwestern Syria, nationalist rebels will be able to disentangle themselves from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and work with Washington and Moscow to defeat al Qaeda and defend civilians.
For Idlib to evolve in the direction of a safe zone, however, Russia would have to refrain from the kinds of air attacks it inflicted on Aleppo while keeping the Assad regime and its Iranian-led backers on a very tight leash. Will Moscow do so? Can it? Will the Russians, in effect, impose a no-fly zone on the Assad regime once Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is history? Will conditions actually emerge that enable the nationalist Syrian opposition to kill al Qaeda? For Idlib province to be safe for civilians, much heavy lifting lies ahead.
Trump and Jordan’s King Abdullah have also reportedly discussed a safe zone in southwestern Syria, between Damascus and the Jordanian border. That area has been relatively quiet. For it to be truly safe for civilians, however, a central role for Jordanian ground and air forces would be ideal.
Only in the case of establishing a post-Islamic State safe zone might American “boots on the ground” in the form of large combat formations be a possibility. Unless Islamic State fighters simply vanish from central and eastern Syria, densely populated areas must be liberated from their grip by military professionals. Pitting militiamen against the Islamic State will only deepen a humanitarian abomination and worsen its political consequences.
For nearly six years, Syrian civilians have had a bull’s-eye painted on them. They, their neighbors, and Western Europeans have paid the price for Assad and the Islamic State’s criminality. A full political transition moving Assad, his family, and his entourage off stage can make all of Syria a safe zone. In the meantime, however, Washington and Moscow must revise their strategies for protecting civilians from the horrors of war.
Photo credit: ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images