By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s push to create safe zones in Syria could force him to make some risky decisions about how far to go to protect refugees, including shooting down Syrian or Russian aircraft or committing thousands of U.S. troops, experts said.
Trump said on Wednesday he “will absolutely do safe zones in Syria” for refugees fleeing violence. According to a document seen by Reuters, he is expected in the coming days to order the Pentagon and the State Department to draft a plan to create such zones in Syria and nearby nations.
The document did not spell out what would make a safe zone “safe” and whether it would protect refugees only from threats on the ground – such as jihadist fighters – or whether Trump envisions a no-fly zone policed by America and its allies.
If it is a no-fly zone, without negotiating some agreement with Russia Trump would have to decide whether to give the U.S. military the authority to shoot down Syrian or Russian aircraft if they posed a threat to people in that zone, which his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, refused to do.
“This essentially boils down to a willingness to go to war to protect refugees,” said Jim Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington, noting Russia’s advanced air defenses.
Trump promised during his campaign to target jihadists from Islamic State, and he has sought to avoid being dragged deeper into Syria’s conflict – raising the question of whether he might be satisfied by assurances, perhaps from Moscow, that neither Russian nor Syrian jets would target the zone.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Trump did not consult with Russia and warned that the consequences of such a plan “ought to be weighed up.”
“It is important that this (the plan) does not exacerbate the situation with refugees,” he said.
Phillips and other experts, including former U.S. officials, said many refugees would not be satisfied by assurances from Moscow, while any deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who also is backed by Iran, might not go over well with America’s Arab allies.
The Pentagon declined comment on Thursday, saying no formal directive to develop such plans had been handed down yet, and some U.S. military officials appeared unaware of the document before seeing it described in the media on Wednesday.
“Our department right now is tasked with one thing in Syria, and that is to degrade and defeat ISIS,” said Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
TENS OF THOUSANDS OF TROOPS
Trump’s call for a plan for safe zones is part of a larger directive expected to be signed in coming days that includes a temporary ban on most refugees to the United States and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries deemed to pose a terrorism threat.
During and after the presidential campaign, Trump called for no-fly zones to harbor Syrian refugees as an alternative to allowing them into the United States. Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to screen Syrian immigrants entering the United States to ensure they had no militant ties.
Any safe zone in Syria guaranteed by the United States would almost certainly require some degree of U.S. military protection. Securing the ground alone would require thousands of troops, former U.S. officials and experts say.
Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, cautioned that a safe zone inside Syria could become a diplomatic albatross that would force a Trump administration to juggle a host of ethnic and political tensions in Syria indefinitely.
Other experts said jihadists could be attracted to the zone, either to carry out attacks that would embarrass the United States or to use the zone as a safe haven where militants could regroup.
Such a zone also would be expensive, given the need to house, feed, educate and provide medical care to the refugees.
“I think these people really have no idea what it takes to support 25,000 people, which is really a small number, in terms of the (internally displaced) and refugees” in Syria, Cordesman said.
The draft document gave no details on what would constitute a safe zone, where one might be set up and who would defend it.
Jordan, Turkey and other neighboring countries already host millions of Syrian refugees. The Turkish government pressed Obama, without success, to create a no-fly zone on Syria’s border with Turkey but now is at odds with Washington over its support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Rodrigo Campos; editing by John Walcott and Cynthia Osterman)