Carlo Valle has served in United States Marine Corps and the United States Army. A graduate of History at Concordia University (Montreal) he is presently pursuing a Masters in Geopolitics and International Relations at the Catholic University of Paris. He can be found on Twitter @cvalle0625. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.
Date Originally Written: December 4, 2016.
Date Originally Published: January 2, 2017.
Author and / or Article Point of View: Author is a former enlisted member of the United States military and a constructivist who believes that international relations are influenced by more than just power and anarchy but also by the construction of identity. The article is written from the point of view of the U.S. towards the Syrian Civil War.
Background: The Syrian Civil War has moved into its fifth year. A combination of intertwined and conflicting interests has created a stalemate for all sides thus prolonging human suffering. Attempting to break the stalemate, Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air forces are bombing civilian targets in rebel-controlled areas, despite claims of targeting only the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusra-held areas.
Significance: The conflict has sparked a mass exodus of refugees fleeing the fighting. This mass exodus has overwhelmed neighboring countries and Europe. To ease this refugee burden and human suffering, some have proposed establishing safe zones.
Option #1: Establish a safe zone. A safe zone is a de-militarized area intended to provide safety to non-combatants.
Risk: For Syria and Russia to respect a safe zone it must protect non-combatants and remain neutral. If Syrian opposition forces use the safe zone as a place from which to mount operations Syria and Russia could then justify attacking the safe zone . If the safe zone is attacked by Syria and Russia, and U.S. and Coalition troops protecting the safe zone are killed or wounded, the U.S. risks war with Syria or Russia . Additionally, if U.S. and Coalition troops discover Syrian opposition forces in the safe zone hostilities could erupt. These hostilities could be used by ISIL or Al-Nusra to recruit new fighters and be a political embarrassment for the U.S. and the Coalition.
Establishing a safe zone will require a sizable neutral military presence that can deter attack and dissuade the Syrian opposition attempting to occupy the safe zone . The military personnel protecting the safe zone must have clear rules of engagement and the overall safe zone mission will require a conditions-based arrival and exit strategy. Just as important as establishing a safe zone is knowing when and how to extract oneself. This goes beyond fear of media or political accusations of “being stuck in a quagmire” or “appeasement.” Instead, the concern is based in judging whether the safe zone is becoming an obstacle to peace or worsening the situation.
Gain: Establishing a safe zone will protect non-combatants thereby reducing the number of refugees overwhelming Syria’s Mid-East neighbors and Europe. In the long-term, refugees that are unable to return to their homeland may destabilize the region by being unable to integrate into their host-nation’s society or by falling into the trap of radicalism. Similar situations have happened in the 20th century with the Palestinian refugee crisis and Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Option #2: Forgoing a safe zone.
Risk: Not establishing a safe zone runs the long-term risks of regional instability or a new wave of radicalism that could be a problem for decades. According to Stephen Walt, the U.S. has no interests in Syria to justify any involvement. However, the Syrian Civil War has brought social and economic strain upon Syria’s neighbors and Europe. In the Middle East, U.S. regional partners could turn their backs on the U.S. if they feel that the U.S. is not acting in their interests i.e. taking actions to stem the flow of refugees. U.S. relationships in the Middle East are already strained due to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. In Europe, refugee migration has ushered a wave of anti-European Union populism that questions the very international system of cooperation the U.S. has benefitted from since the end of World War II. Were this questioning of the international system to fracture Europe, it would not be able to counter Russian aggression.
Gain: The biggest advantage to forgoing the safe zone is the ability to keep other options open. U.S. and Coalition forces could be better used elsewhere, likely focusing on near-peer competitors such as Russia or China. U.S. and Coalition forces could be employed in the Baltic States, or in the Pacific Rim to counter Russian aggression and China’s rise.
Other Comments: None.
 Joseph, E. P., & Stacey, J. A. (2016). A Safe Zone for Syria: Kerry’s Last Chance. Foreign Affairs. Accessed from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2016-10-05/safe-zone-syria
 Bier, D. J. (2016). Safe Zones Won’t Save Syrians. National Interest. Accessed from http://nationalinterest.org/feature/safe-zones-wont-save-syrians-17979
 Stout, M. (2015). [W]Archives: When “Safe Zones” Fail. War on the Rocks. Accessed from http://warontherocks.com/2015/07/warchives-when-safe-zones-fail/
 Kristoff, N. (2016). Obama’s Worst Mistake [Op-Ed]. The New York Times. Accessed from http://nyti.ms/2aCJ54F
 Walt, S. M. (2016). The Great Myth About U.S. Intervention in Syria. Foreign Policy. Accessed from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/24/the-great-myth-about-u-s-intervention-in-syria-iraq-afghanistan-rwanda/