Turkey Cautious, Russia Concerned Over US Safe Zone Plan in Syria

Turkey deployed tanks and troops in neighboring Syria in late August.

For years Turkey craved for setting up a safe zone in Syria to unburden its host of millions of refugees by placing them in camps in northern Syria, but its calls gained neither traction nor significant attention from the U.S. and the EU.

Deterred by the risk of a deep entanglement in the Syrian conflict, the Obama administration steadfastly fought against such calls to create safe zones, citing complexity of the situation and Russia’s addition to the equation.

All that poised to change after new President Donald Trump said in an interview that he signed an executive order and directed the State Department and Pentagon to draft a plan for the formation of safe zones in war-ravaged Syria to stem the flow of refugees toward Europe.

Trump’s remarks generated mixed reactions from Turkey and Russia, two key players in the Syrian conflict. While the former says it needs to see details of such plans before taking any position, Moscow warned about possible consequences of a U.S. action in Syria.

“I’ll absolutely do safe zones in Syria,” Trump said in a televised interview with ABC on Friday. His remarks reflect a sharp departure from Syria policy of Mr. Obama who refused to get the U.S. involved in a conflict that raged for almost 6 years and killed half a million people.

Turkey, the main sponsor of pro-Western rebel groups, has long pressed for the creation of no-fly or safe zones in northern Syria to accommodate refugees there. But Mr. Trump’s proposal did not unleash a sense of jubilation or prompt fresh expectations on the Turkish front. Rather Turkey treated the reports with caution.

Turkey is waiting for the outcome of Trump’s order, Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Huseyin Muftuoglu told reporters in Ankara. “We have seen the U.S. president’s request for conducting a study. What’s important is the results of this study and what kind of recommendation will come out,” Mr. Muftuoglu said. He cited Jarablus as a model for a successful safe zone. The Syrian border town was captured from Islamic State militants in last August in a Turkey-backed rebel offensive.

Russia expressed both caution and concern over Mr. Trump’s remarks. “Our American partners did not consult with Russia. It is their sovereign decision,” Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said regarding safe zone plans. “It’s important to make sure that this does not further aggravate the situation with refugees. Evidently, all the possible consequences should be taken into account.”

“The Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense, is directed within 90 days of the date of this order to produce a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await from settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country settlement,” the draft order seen by Reuters said.

According to the Reuters report, the document gave no details on what would constitute a safe zone, exactly where they might be set up and who would defend them. The order represents a significant break with Mr. Obama’s long-running refusal of calls for safe zones over concerns of the escalation of U.S. involvement that could bring the risk of military encounter either with the Syrian regime or Russian forces, ardent backer of President Bashar al-Assad.

If the U.S. moves forward with Mr. Trump’s plan, it may drag the U.S. air, and even ground forces deeper into the combustible battleground of Syria, a theater of multiple proxy wars within a 6-year war between rebel groups and forces loyal to Mr. Assad. The American presence in Syria is currently limited to combatting ISIS radicals. The U.S. air forces provide air cover to Syrian Kurdish militia to defeat ISIS, and safe zone plans would dramatically change the nature and scope of U.S. military involvement in the conflict.

Questions still hover over the realization of such a plan amid existence of multiple risks and pitfalls. “If you are going to declare a safe zone, there’s a lot of other things” that would have to be analyzed and put in place before it becomes feasible, a U.S. official told Reuters.

Last year, Russia warned that its air defense system in Syria would down any fighter jet targeting Syrian forces. But analysts harbor some optimism that Mr. Trump’s possible overtures to mend ties with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and his expressed eagerness to cooperate with Russia to fight against ISIS in Syria may well be harbinger of a new era of working together both to combat terrorism, and eventually set up safe zone for refugees. How it would translate into reality remains to be seen after Mr. Peskov’s warnings. But the presence of Turkish forces on the ground and signs for more benign relations between the Trump administration and Mr. Putin’s Russia would make safe zone plans feasible and realizable.

Turkey and Russia recently appeared as two leading powers to engineer a diplomatic solution to the devastating Syrian war. For the first time in 6 years, warring sides of the conflict sit around a table in Astana last week to hammer out modalities and details of a workable cease-fire that brokered by Turkey and Russia in late December. Astana talks gave way to the formation of a trilateral mechanism by Turkey, Russia, and Iran to monitor implementation of fragile truce amid reports of fighting on the ground in various parts of Syria.

Along with the safe zone plan came Mr. Trump’s ban on refugees of all sort for 4 months in a new executive order announced on Friday. President Trump barred all refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days and indefinitely halted any from Syria. New “extreme vetting measures” will be established to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the U.S., Mr. Trump told reporters. “We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country, and love deeply our people.” Additionally, refugees from 7 Muslim-majority countries will not be allowed to enter the U.S for 90 days. Christians will have the priority in new vetting measures before accepting refugees because, according to Mr. Trump, Christians in Syria were “horribly treated.”

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