WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump raised the prospect of Syria safe zones in a call with the Saudi king Jan. 29, after having removed a provision calling for his secretaries of state and defense to produce a proposal for Syria safe zones from a controversial executive order issued Jan. 27 that bans Syrian refugees from the United States indefinitely.
The deletion of the provision and the subsequent discussion of safe zones with the king have raised questions about what Trump may be envisioning for his policies on Syria, for countering the so-called Islamic State (IS) and for his engagements with foreign counterparts, from Russia to the Middle East.
The arrangements that the new Trump administration would like to pursue with Russia to try to achieve a Syria political settlement and combat IS are likely to be a central topic of conversation when Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Feb. 15, former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said.
While “much remains unknown about the new administration’s approach to Syria, they made references to safe zones, to protect civilian populations,” Shapiro told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview from Israel on Jan. 31.
“It seems clear to me that if President Trump is intent on a significantly … more cooperative framework to our relationship with Russia, that the Russians may have [questions] or demands about how that can play itself out in Syria,” said Shapiro, who served as President Barack Obama’s envoy to Israel from 2011 until Trump took office Jan. 20.
Shapiro indicated that this may be part of what Trump will seek to discuss with Netanyahu, while adding, “Again, much remains unknown.”
An earlier draft of the executive order banning Syrian refugees, published by the Huffington Post on Jan. 25, included a section titled “Establishment of Syria Safe Zones to Protect Vulnerable Syrian Populations.” The one-paragraph section directed the secretaries of state and defense to — within 90 days — “produce a plan … to provide safe areas within Syria and in the surrounding region in which” displaced Syrians “can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement.”
But that safe zones section was removed from the executive order that Trump ultimately signed at the Pentagon on Jan. 27. The final document, proclaiming that the "entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States,” banned Syrian refugees from entering the United States indefinitely, banned the citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) from entering the United States for 90 days and capped the number of refugees the United States accepts annually at 50,000, down by half from current levels. The order set off confusion, distress and protests at airports around the country and the globe, led to the detention of over 100 people — who had been in transit at the time it was issued — upon their arrival at US airports and blocked over 700 travelers from being permitted to board their flights to the United States from abroad, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Many Republican lawmakers said they had been blindsided by the White House on the order and expressed dismay at the chaotic way it was rolled out, with no advance consultation.
Despite the removal of the Syria safe zones section from the refugee ban, it does seem to be an idea that the new president is seriously considering, Syria expert Nicholas Heras said.
“I do think the concept of a safe zone is something that this administration is seriously considering,” Heras, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, told Al-Monitor in an interview.
Under the Obama administration, the Pentagon “did draw up plans for how to do this,” Heras said. “I think you have Trump himself consistently since the election and since he became president mentioning the concept of safe zones in Syria. … I think it was removed from the refugee executive order because they were trying to distinguish between homeland security … from a military foreign policy decision. … They didn’t want to have it codified … in an executive order, where … it is more prudent to do it over the course of conversations with regional partners.”
“And in some respects, that is actually better,” Heras said. “It keeps it as a foreign policy option … in the realm of engaging by, with and through regional partners to achieve that objective.”
“There has been a consistent theme during [Trump’s] campaign … a straight line from having a safe zone, reducing the flow of refugees to Europe, moving refugees back from Europe to Syria and reducing the pressure on the United States and Europe to admit refugees,” Heras added.
Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, in their Jan. 29 phone call, “agreed on the importance of strengthening joint efforts to fight the spread of radical Islamic terrorism and also on the importance of working jointly to address challenges to regional peace and security, including the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” according to a White House readout. “The president requested and the king agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts.”
The Trump administration is going to have to strike a balance between the desire of many of its close regional allies such as Saudi Arabia not to see Iran and Hezbollah increase their foothold in Syria, with its interest in working with Russia there, Shapiro said.
“Considering that many of our allies in the region, from Jordan to the Gulf states to Israel to Turkey, also have interests in Syria, and many of them include trying not to ensure the perpetuation of [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad’s role and not strengthening Iran or Hezbollah’s foothold in Syria,” the former US ambassador to Israel said. “It will be a balance that the [US] administration may have to try to strike a cooperative approach in Syria [with Russia], and upholding the interests of various allies in Syria.”
Asked how much continuity he saw between Trump's potentially seeking to pursue counterterrorism cooperation and stabilization with Russia in Syria — considering the efforts the Obama administration attempted with Moscow over the past year to achieve a cessation of hostilities — Shapiro said that while there is some continuity, there are important differences as well.
“To the extent that I assume there is a desire to bring to an end the violence in Syria — and that requires some participation of the various sides and their sponsors — I assume some continuity, [but there were some] lines the Obama administration was not prepared to cross,” he said.
“We were not prepared to engage in joint targeting or strikes [with Russia] against [IS], even as we attacked IS very strongly ourselves,” Shapiro said. “We were not willing to give any endorsement to the perpetuation of Assad’s rule, even while acknowledging that a political solution would have to include some negotiation with the regime to effect his departure and a political solution.”
Shapiro said, “Those are areas where it is not yet known whether there is true continuity to the new one [Trump administration policy]. I honestly can’t assess it. They don’t have most of their staff and Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials in place to even analyze, much less make decisions on these questions.”
“I suspect we are going to be in for a somewhat prolonged period of policy review, internal examination and will be left with some public statements, head of state phone calls and a few other signals as to a general direction,” Shapiro said. “But real decisions on this will take some time.”
A European diplomat echoed the sentiment that much is still unclear about the new administration's policies and even its organizational chart.
"What matters is … what will be the policies of this administration,” a European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said. “On a lot of foreign issues, we still don't know."
Routine information sharing has been as hard to come by for allied diplomats as for journalists, given the still unclear Trump National Security Council organizational chart, seemingly competing power centers and key US diplomatic staff not yet being in place.
"The problem we are facing is [that] the sources we could have are limited. The secretary of state is not confirmed,” the diplomat said. “Simply, the system does not [yet] work.”