A meeting of the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition of 68 countries – the first meeting of the coalition since Donald Trump was elected US President – was held in Washington last week. It was announced that the US policy’s goal is creating «interim zones of stability» – the term used by State Secretary Rex Tillerson. It stops short of «safe zones», which the American military leaders are reluctant to use, despite of the fact that it is used by members of administration. It does not change the gist of the matter, meaning by and large the very same thing.
The proposal represents a significant policy reversal from the previous administration, which tried to avoid drawing the country into another war.
The State Secretary did not make precise where exactly the safe areas are planned to be set up. According to him, other nations, particularly those which have faced the Islamic State (IS) or IS-inspired attacks, must contribute more militarily or financially. Hungarian Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto, did not waste time to state that his country would send 50 more soldiers to Iraq, taking its contribution up to 200.
An analysis of reports coming from Syria and Iraq indicates the US has already changed its policy, abruptly intensifying military activities in these countries. On March 22, the US-supported forces launched a major offensive to cut off the western approaches to Raqqa, which the IS has proclaimed its capital. For the first time ever, the United States carried out an air assault with Syrian fighters. Army helicopters landed behind enemy lines transporting about 500 local American allies and coalition military advisers across the Euphrates River and Lake Assad so they could attack the IS-controlled dam and neighboring town and airfield from the south.
In a new policy shift, President Trump has given a leeway to his field commanders to carry out operations without permission from top command in Washington. The operation was supported by aviation and Marine Corps artillery. It means that the “zones of stability” concept can also be implemented at the level of the military command.
The creation of special areas to provide safety for civilians sounds like a good idea. In reality it would create a host of challenges. The plans foresee significant increase of the American involvement in the conflict. It will require substantial ground forces and air power. According to some estimates, at least 30, 000 troops will be needed to protect the areas.
Having lost ground on the battlefield, IS militants will dissipate into underground cells to mount terrorist attacks across the whole world. The planned zones do not address this issue. This bring into focus the importance of intelligence exchange, but some countries, like Russia, which could contribute significantly into the effort, were not invited to the conference.
It’s an open secret that the Free Syrian Army as well as the Syrian Democratic Forces are a hodge-podge of anti-government forces, including al-Qaeda and other extremists. There is a great chance that civilians will be protected by armed personalities of dubious character, to put it mildly. Can they be trusted? The US has a sad experience of rubbing shoulders with “moderate opposition” in Iraq with the IS to emerge as a result.
It’s important to prevent the zones from strengthening political positions of one of the warring parties, attracting rebel groups which are fighting the Russia-supported Syrian government on the ground. The areas should not be used as safe havens for US-backed forces who would seek to use these areas as shelter from the fighting or to establish bases from which they could launch attacks without fear of reprisal.
If a zone is controlled jointly by the US and Turkey to protect Syria’s Turkmen (Turkomans) and Sunni Arabs only, then it will mean the division of the country reducing the chances to find a solution to the conflict.
Whatever the US plans are, it cannot go it alone without cooperating with other influential actors. With many parties involved in the conflict, no mission can be carried out without coordination and mediation. Without approval by UN Security Council, there will be few contributors to shoulder the heavy burden. If the US decides to continue with the idea, it should become an issue on the agenda for talks with Russia and the Syrian government to prevent accidents.
The United States has taken a decision to get deeply involved in the Syria conflict. It brings to mind the fact that Donald Trump won the presidential race largely because Americans were tired of the past 16 years of continuous foreign interventions.
The sad thing about this is that these plans do not presuppose intensifying diplomatic efforts to coordinate activities with the influential actors. The idea of some kind of special areas has been long advocated by Turkey but it cannot be implemented without the Syrian government, Russia and Iran.
If Russia and the US reach an agreement, the plan could be pushed through the UN Security Council to make it what it should be – a multinational operation conducted in line with international law. In this case, the plans have a chance. If not, the implementation of the concept may lead to terrible consequences, including a military conflict. Hopefully, there will be some clarification when State Secretary Rex Tillerson visits Moscow in early April.