When I first thought about a solution for the refugee crisis, it was back in early 2015 when just the Turkish authorities seemed to share a similar option. After several terror attacks, degrading security environment in European cities, a regional humanitarian crisis and a huge political burden for mainstream parties, I think the world should explore some other options than the “wide” open door policy de facto assumed as EU’s migration policy; followed by the quota system, that distributed refugees in each member country and then the flawed, unrealistic Turkish deal, that have created a recipe for implosion of the European Union. The migration crisis is hardly to blame for this situation, as the organization’s completely lacks any kind of security or defense capacity, yet new reports now start speaking about a global role for the EU – how do you plan to implement a global strategy by lacking hard power? Whatever. The lack of US leadership and the unwillingness to boost capable regional actors were also a defining factor of this chapter.
The policy proposal that I forward in this text has the following objectives:
- Keeping refugees in their native socio-cultural environment,
- Secure the borders and the seas,
- Stopping illegal sea crossings,
- Dismantle the refugee wave that facilitates opportunists as economic migrants from countries officially declared as safe from entering the EU,
- Reduce the risk of terror attacks, urban insecurity and social unrest, thereby offering the chance to revive Shenghen in the future,
- Facilitating humanitarian aid and human security for those fleeing the war zone, through military means (ground troops and no-fly zone),
- Make possible a lengthy, more efficient screening process for refugees.
How? Safe zones in Syria. What is a “safe zone”? No, it’s those Marxist campus programs; I’m talking about the real deal. A safe zone, as referred in this context, is a territorial area liberated and secured, protected by military means, both on soil (ground troops) and in air (no-fly zone), where human security can be guaranteed and humanitarian aid can be administrated. Such a safe zone was planned from early 2015, when Turkey, a large receiver of refugees, was committed to enforce this measure in northern Syria, on the Turkish border, between Kobane and Afrin cantons.
“Right from the beginning … we would say ‘yes’,” Erdogan told NBC in 2013, when asked if Turkey, a NATO member that shares its longest border with Syria, would support a no-fly zone.
The refugees fleeing the war in Syria need protection from ISIS, other radical groups as the Islamic Front, but also from the Syrian regime, the in-discriminatory barrel bombings within large urban areas are major migration inducers. Thereby a no-fly zone, the air security part of the safe zone, would deter Syrian jets from entering their air space.
The German chancellor, Angela Markel also has sought the creation of “safe zones” to shelter refugees inside Syria, a proposal criticized by the UN and rights groups. Speaking at a university in the city of Gaziantep, Angela Merkel called for “zones where the ceasefire is particularly enforced and where a significant level of security can be guaranteed […] Our goal is not only to stop illegal migration, but for refugees to have more opportunities near their home,” Merkel said.
Have safe zones been implemented before? Yes they have, but mostly through the UN, and have been secured by peace-keeping forces – a recipe for failure. But when enforced by state actors, they work. Actually, that’s what kept the Kurdish population alive in the Hussein regime, when US declared a no-fly zone (just a part of a safe zone) over Iraqi Kurdistan. Operation Provide Comfort were a series of military missions that managed to defend Kurds fleeing their homes in northern Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War and deliver humanitarian aid to them.
So why wasn’t it implemented? Well… Barrack Obama was not a fan of the proposal. The White House has repeatedly reject such a plan, as early as 2015, when Obama was still funding the failed “train and equip program” that barely prepared 400 fighters, some of them defecting to radical groups, as the ex-Nusra. Speaking with Angela Merkel at a news conference on April 2016, Obama defended his position of denying safe zones: “The issue surrounding a safe zone in Syrian territory is not a matter of an ideological objection on my part […] It’s not a matter of me not wishing I could help and protect a whole bunch of people. It’s a very practical issue about how do you do it? For him, the main challenge was what country will “put a bunch of ground troops inside of Syria?” Turkey! They did not only repeatedly say they would do it, they actually did it!
The Turkish do-it-yourself solution
Turkey is the second largest military power in NATO, is a country that shares an 800 km long border with Syria and is gravely affected by migration that the war-ravaged state of Syria generates. Since their border was weakened, terror attacks have not only intensified in the south-eastern part of the country, but also erupted in Ankara and Istanbul. Anatolia has become the main transit route, for both refugees, heading towards Europe, and foreign fighters going into Syria. And if the Department of State couldn’t predict that Turkey would enter Syria to establish a buffer zone, then I did it.
Ankara did eventually send ground forces to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria, in operation “Euphrates Shield”, clearing a huge chunk of territory bordering Turkey from ISIS and Kurdish control. It is a mostly a sucess: they’ve cleared 101 km wide of Turkish-Syrian territory, from Azaz to Jarabulus, and they’re still pushing towards al-Bab – 30 km inside Syrian territory, just 30 km east of Aleppo. Of course they negotiated a trade-off with Russia in order to enter Syria uninterrupted; Ankara renounced its support for the Rebels fighting in Syria – that’s why the fell so quickly. But Assad has lost legitimacy in most of the country, except the Shia-Allawite heartland of Latakia, the loyal Damascus and the Druze south of the capital, as the isolated eastern placed Deir-Ezzor. In the northern region, Assad tried to maintain a de facto control by an unofficial partnership with the Kurdish YPG, even tolerating their Rojava Federation. But Turkey could have entered Syria even without a trade-off…. So the cards for more ambitious plans are are still on the table. And guess what? The safe zones might even be implemented!
The Trump administration
Donald Trump and Mike Pence rarely made precise remarks regarding their foreign policy vision, but when they did, they mentioned Syria. Safe zones in Syria are main objectives for the Trump administration:
“We’ll build safe zones in Syria,” President-elect Donald Trump said as he made a post-election thank-you trip to Hershey, PA. “When I look at what’s going on in Syria, it’s so sad. It’s so sad. And we’ve got to help people […] And we have the Gulf States. They have nothing but money. We don’t have money. We owe $20 trillion. I will get the Gulf States to give us lots of money, and we’ll build and help build safe zones in Syria, so people can have a chance. So they can have a chance”.
“I truly do believe that what America ought to do right now is immediately establish safe zones so that families, and vulnerable families with children can move out of those areas, work with our Arab partners, real-time, right now, to make that happen” Mike Pence, Vice-President elect, told at the first and only vice presidential debate held at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.
Surprisingly so, Hillary Clinton’s VP, Tim Kaine , at the same exact debate, said that they have a similar plan: “Hillary and I also agree the establishment of humanitarian zones in northern Syria with the provision of international human aid, consistent with the United Nations Security Council resolution that was passed in February 2014 would be a very, very good idea.”
There’s just a realism problem to their version: the United Nations. A safe zone resolution would never pass the Security Council because of Russia, which would veto such a proposal in order to maintain Assad’s sovereignty over the whole territory (possible just at a political level). Such a project would however be possible through a Gulf Council resolution, or even with a simple multilateral agreement; as Ronald Reagan said: “we must work with friends if possible, alone if necessary.”
The Gulf States need to contribute to this project, both by military and financially means. If they can afford financing Salafist groups as Ahrar ash-Sham, Ansar al-Sharia or Jaysh al-Fath, then I guess they can also spear some change for their brothers and sisters in suffering. And if the US and Germany don’t have leverage over them, I don’t know who has…A strong regional alliance led by the US in Syria would deter any kind of Russian jet or Iranian contingent from trying to enforce a dictator’s lost legitimacy over a piece of territory.
The forgotten ally: Jordan
Jordan who is also overwhelmed by the huge refugee influx, a long standing ally of the US in the War on Terror, could also be a possible contributor to safe zones, parallel established in southern Syria as well – on the Jordanian-Syrian border – currently in Rebel control. Amman has been coordinating with US and UK in training the more “silent” but efficient “New Syrian Army” with the purpose of securing its border and recapturing the Syrian-Iraqi border territory under ISIS control. The “Ghosts of the Desert” (yes, a cheesy title) is also a group within this new umbrella faction, they’ve been running black ops, deep behind ISIS lines, performing sabotage and POW rescue operations.
Jordan has already accepted more than 600,000 UN-registered Syrian refugees out of 4.6 million registered worldwide. The government says another one million Syrians are living there, including those who arrived before the 2011 uprising. Together with Palestinians and Iraqis, refugees make up around 20 percent of the population. King Abdullah also informed that around 25% of the country’s GDP is being spent on their administration – he warns that Jordan would implode if something fast will not be done.
Safe-Zones enforced by Turkish Armed Forces in northern Syria, and by Jordan in the south on it’s border, would relieve both actors from the high pressure of refugees. Migrants from both states would be transferred in the planned territories where facilities, aid and palpable security and defense would provide a real safe haven. A trust fund would secure the whole operation/ administration, with the Gulf states allocation most of the funding but also providing the political legitimacy as Sunni representatives (as Turkey, Jordan). A strict and detailed screening of migrants to be done on sight (assistance by US and NATO states delegations). These actions would benefit the European continent if the following complementary security measures are being taken domestic-wise:
- European Union to assume a firm policy that would deny the refugee wave threatening its borders; send a clear message that Syrians and Iraqis now have a closer, secure option for shelter, thereby EU admission for them will be minimized or ceased.
- Task NATO to take led in maritime security missions, through Standing Maritime Group 1 and 2; close co-op with volunteer member States (expected: Greece, Italy, UK, Turkey).
- Turn back boats, if not possible, return migrants with own naval assets – assure human security.
- NATO Task Force to identify, locate and hunt down human traffickers.
- Coordinate action, establish dialogue for migration-ceasing objective with friendly, key North African states, as Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
What’s left? A failed Syria policy
The King has been crying over Obama’s unwillingness to intervene in the Syrian war; he even refused to give Jordan laser guided ammunition in order to take out ISIS convoys. King Abdullah of Jordan, as Netanyahu and most of the regional allies, was needed to pitch Congress for help and discuss with senators, as John McCain, while The Department of State and the White House, were only preoccupied in giving a hand at a declaration-level, with fancy speeches and dramatic statements of solidarity. The Regime overthrow prospect failed even before it began, even Erdogan publicly stressed that Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” several times already, including with regards of using chemical weapons, but nothing was done. The Obama administration was stuck between an non-intervention rigid idealism and an urgent need of involvement that was treated with half-measures, thereby it had compromising effects on America’s image and power in the world. The regime change prospect is well out of the way for now, while many think this is a good thing, it actually isn’t. Dictatorial regimes are ideal for fueling rebellions, and given the context and the radical alternative to the regime, the level of violence applied by the Assad administration will only provide a constant nursery for the many Jihadi groups. The US has few objectives left on the table, more exactly, to coordinate and facilitate the liberation of Raqqa and the restoration of the Syrian-Iraqi border, which would help stabilize the Iraqi situation as well; to maintain friendly assets on the battlefield (Kurdish militias) and the very few vetted Rebel groups, but not at the expense of losing a long standing and strategic relations with Turkey, Israel or Jordan.
There are many leftists opposing the safe-zones prospect just because Trump wants to implement it; well… Remember that Angela Merkel is also a huge supporter of it, as Hillary Clinton had a similar version of a plan. It’s reasonable, is realistically and pragmatically, regardless of where you stand, it just lacked US commitment, that Obama blamed it to be a “pragmatical problem” when it clearly is a ideological one for him. This is the same lack of commitment that “invited” opportunists states as Russia, Iran and it’s proxies, to venture-in, capitalize power and shape the region. Hopefully, after 20th January, The West will still have a say in this.
Epilogue: Fight or Flight?
A petition that’s expected to soon pass the minimum 300,000 signatures, is circulating in Turkey’s cyberspace (source). The petition calls for the male refugees in Turkey to be trained and sent back to Syria to fight against Jihadists alongside the Turkish Armed Forces. After reaching the 300,000 mark, the Chief of General Staff will need to address the public forwarding this petition. While it may sound as a uniquely strange proposal, Poland’s Foreign Minister called for a similar action back in November 2015. Whether is just an online fuss, or a policy proposal worth taken into consideration, it remains to be seen.
 “Turkey PM ‘Will Support’ Syria No-Fly Zone – Al Jazeera English.” http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/05/201351076615828.html.
 “Merkel Calls for Refugee ‘Safe Zones’ in Syria.”
 Rogin, Josh. “U.S. Shoots Down Idea of Syria Safe Zone.” Bloomberg View, July 28, 2015. https://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-07-28/u-s-shoots-down-idea-of-syria-safe-zone.
 I. “Obama Says Syria ‘Safe Zone’ a Practical Problem.”
 “Trump: ‘We’ll Build Safe Zones in Syria’ With Money from Gulf States.” CNS News, December 16, 2016. http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/susan-jones/trump-well-build-safe-zones-syria-money-gulf-states.
 Staff, POLITICO. “Full Transcript: 2016 Vice Presidential Debate.” POLITICO. http://politi.co/2dKGrw2.
“Syria’s New Army.” BBC Monitoring. http://www.bbc.co.uk/monitoring/syrias-new-army.
 “The Ghosts of the Desert: Fighting ISIS From Within.” Conflict News.
 “‘We Can’t Do It Anymore’: Jordan’s King Abdullah Demands Help on Refugees.” https://news.vice.com/article/we-cant-do-it-anymore-jordans-king-abdullah-demands-help-on-refugees.
 Warrick, Joby. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. First Anchor Books edition. New York: Anchor Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015, pp. 9.
 “The ‘Red Line’ That Wasn’t: Obama’s Decision Not to Bomb Syria After Assad’s Use of Chemical Weapons – The Atlantic – The Atlantic.” https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/473025/syria-red-line-that-wasnt/.