Tillerson’s Push for Safe Zones in Iraq and Syria Faces Questions, Obstacles
Allies and activists oppose sending refugees back into a war zone
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a plan to establish safe zones in war-torn countries to allow refugees to return home, setting the stage for a dramatic shift in refugee policy and a greater U.S. and Western military footprint in Iraq and Syria.
Speaking at summit of the 68-member coalition against the Islamic State, Tillerson said the U.S. would set up “interim zones of stability” without elaborating on the specifics, such as where they would be located or how they would be secured.
Coalition officials told Foreign Policy that the interim zones referred to territory recaptured from the Islamic State across vast swaths of Iraq and Syria that would be held by a yet-to-be determined mix of Turkish, Kurdish and Western forces.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly supported the notion of safe zones as a means of stemming the tide of refugees flooding into Europe and other Western countries. “I’ll absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people,” Trump told ABC News in January without giving any details.
But the plan has faced criticism from U.S. allies and humanitarian organizations with legal and ethical concerns about forcing refugees back into a conflict zone. “We were never close to favoring this solution,” Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva, whose country is a member of the coalition, told FP.
“Our line was always that we should comply with international law on refugees and the protection of refugees,” Silva said. You aren’t complying with the law “if you force them to stay in their country when you cannot ensure that they won’t be attacked by some of the warring factions,” he said.
When asked about humanitarian objections to a safe zone plan, a State Department official told FP, “We’re looking into those concerns.” The official added, however, that the details of the plan have yet to be fleshed out and were unlikely to be resolved at the two-day summit in Washington.
The official said the plan would not resemble earlier proposals for safe zones backed by the Syrian opposition during the Obama years that would have involved U.S. warplanes patrolling the skies to deter Syrian government jets from bombing civilians and rebel forces.
Regardless, determining which forces will stabilize which areas is a politically difficult task.
Turkey has repeatedly warned that U.S.-protected areas could become safe havens for Kurdish militants who Ankara considers terrorists. Meanwhile, Westerns government have been wary of dedicating troops to another Middle Eastern intervention, though officials acknowledged that certain ISIS-held areas could not be stabilized by Turks or Kurds and would likely require a Western holding force.
“A safe zone in theory assumes some agreement on the part of the Russians, Turks, and possibly Syrians to yield sovereignty, or you don’t have agreement,” said Brian McKeon, former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama-era Pentagon, who left in January. “The number of assets it would take to defend against potential attacks would likely be to the detriment of the counter-ISIL campaign” elsewhere, he cautioned.
The debate over safe zones comes as the Pentagon is moving more troops and assets into Syria and Iraq. The U.S has dispatched several hundred Marines to a small base outside of Raqqa to bring their artillery to bear on the eventual push by U.S.-trained local forces to expel ISIS from its stronghold there.
On Tuesday night, U.S. helicopters ferried a group of those Syrian Democratic Forces — along with U.S. military advisors — to the town of Tabaq, about 20 miles outside of the city. The Marines are expected to fire in support of those troops, a Central Command official told FP. There are as many as 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria, training and advising Kurdish and Syrian Arabs.
The U.S.-led coalition on Wednesday also denied that it had carried out an airstrike near Raqqa that allegedly killed 30 civilians. The charges come a week after another U.S. strike in Aleppo province is said to have killed 49 civilians in a mosque. The coalition says that it targeted a meeting of al Qaeda operatives near the mosque, but has offered pictures it claims show the mosque itself is untouched. A military investigation is ongoing.
Some U.S. military leaders have signaled an openness to considering establishing a safe zone in northern Syria, however. The idea is “a viable concept,” Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command said last month, especially in “areas that have already been secured where we’ve already got humanitarian and stabilization activities ongoing.”
In Iraq, the picture is similar. American military brass are in no rush to leave once Mosul is retaken, and Baghdad “is very keen” to have U.S. and coalition support going forward, Votel said. The Iraqis “are looking for continuing support that allows them to prevent the reemergence of this enemy, and gives then the ability to handle this on their own.”
Wednesday’s summit is the first such gathering of anti-ISIS countries since Trump took office and is aimed at devising a plan for stabilizing Iraq and Syria after the expected military defeat of ISIS.
In his speech, Tillerson called on U.S. allies to contribute more to the anti-ISIS effort and prioritize the campaign above all other issues facing the Middle East.
“I recognize there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but defeating ISIS is the United States’ number one goal in the region,” said Tillerson. “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand.”
A key challenge for Tillerson this week will be answering an array of questions from Middle East and European allies who told FP they were confused about the Trump administration’s priorities and objectives in the Middle East.
“Europeans are still pretty lost in terms of trying to work out where Trump is actually headed on the anti-ISIS front, and as much as anything the summit is seen as an opportunity to get some steer on US policy,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“There’s real confusion in terms of how the policy is going to unfold, whether it will entail escalation or a more hands off approach, and how exactly Trump plans on squaring the various circles in terms of managing competing ambitions towards ISIS, Iran, Turkey, Russia and so forth,” he added.
Some U.S. allies complained about a lack of organization ahead of the summit, and a tight event schedule that did not leave time for substantive discussions. Initially, a Tuesday dinner was planned for the foreign ministers of a core group of anti-ISIS allies: Germany, Italy, Britain, France and the United States. But that was downgraded to a supper with the countries’ political directors.
Still, diplomats said there was good reason to attend the Washington event, in particular, the chance to get facetime with senior officials of the young U.S. administration and show unity against the terrorist group.