Safe Zones in Syria Are a Bad Idea

President Trump reportedly spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia on Sunday about imposing safe zones in Syria, presumably for the purpose of protecting civilians from rebels and Syrian and Russian bombardment. Such a policy carries a lot of risk, would likely violate international and U.S. law, and is strategically unwise.

Safe zones have a mixed record at best for protecting civilians. In the 1990s, Iraqi Shia in United Nations’ safe zones turned out to be not so safe from Saddam Hussein. Bosnian Muslims were unprotected in Srebrenica, the city now associated with a terrible massacre despite an established safe zone there. Even beyond the logistical challenge of setting up safe zones in the middle of a chaotic civil war, keeping the civilians safe inside is no piece of cake. Humanitarian relief would have to be supplied, which requires an additional commitment of resources and coordination. And it would be difficult to prevent Syrian rebel groups from infiltrating, targeting, or otherwise taking advantage of them. On-the-ground forces would be required to police the area and distinguish between militants and civilians seeking refuge. Moreover, safe zones would require, at the very least, sustained use of airpower to protect the skies over them and the territory around them. The Syrian air force and the Russian air force are already crowding those skies. U.S. intervention would be subject to direct challenge, or at the very least massively increase the chances of accidental confrontation.

Americans should also consider the legality of such a move. Establishing safe zones requires imposing on the territorial integrity of another sovereign nation and defending those zones with military force. Under international law, that’s illegal in the absence of host nation permission or an authorization from the UN Security Council. There is little chance Syria is going to give such permission to the United States and Saudi Arabia, and given Russia’s alliance with the Syrian regime, a Security Council authorization will not be forthcoming.

The Trump administration would be on similarly shaky ground as far as domestic U.S. law is concerned. U.S. military action in Syria during the Obama and now Trump administrations has no specific authorization from Congress. It has so far been justified legally by reference to the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized action against those groups and individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks and then against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Neither authorization could plausibly justify imposing safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria, operations that would clearly be unconnected to those past missions.

The practical and legal considerations here certainly present obstacles. But it’s in the realm of strategy that the plan for safe zones really falls flat. Pursuing such a dangerous mission, so fraught with practical complications and the potential for mission creep, without specifying the greater strategic end that it is supposed to serve, is profoundly irresponsible. And what strategic objective might safe zones achieve? Even if they are successful in protecting some civilians, they won’t resolve the underlying political issues in Syria that are driving the conflict in the first place. In fact, they will more likely complicate them. Furthermore, establishing safe zones in the absence of the political will and resolve necessary to fully enforce them undermines the case for imposing them in the first place. If the American public and their elected officials don’t fully understand the potential consequences and support the prospect of an expanded mission in case of unexpected contingencies, imposing safe zones in Syria is the height of strategic folly.

To date, proposals to set up safe zones in Syria appear to be proposals to “do something,” or at least to appear to be doing something, even if that something ignores the likely adverse consequences and is unconnected to viable strategic goals.