Creating Syria Safe Zones Is a Dangerous Step Toward War

Having proposed more than my fair share of bad ideas during more than 20 years in government service, I know one when I see it. And the proposal by various media commentators and politicians to create safe zones inside Syria for refugees and rebels is one bad idea.

If President Barack Obama determines that toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad by force is a vital U.S. national interest (though it isn’t), he should create a coalition to act quickly, decisively and effectively to do it. Otherwise, he should avoid half-baked measures, such as the safe-zones scheme, that can lead to an open-ended military commitment without accomplishing the intended results.

The desire to do something about Syria is understandable. An April 12 cease-fire brokered by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan between the government and leading opposition groups has failed -- deaths, including those of at least 34 children, continue to mount on both sides. To many, the Russians and Chinese appear callous for supporting Assad, and the U.S. looks feckless for not doing more -- much more -- to take down the regime.

But the president is absolutely right to be wary of ill-considered interventions, including the idea du jour for stopping the killing. (John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has begun talking up the concept.) Like the Annan plan, safe zones are far more compelling on paper than they would be in practice.

A Tightening Noose

The arguments in their favor go something like this: Safe zones would absorb fleeing refugees, relieving pressure on Turkey, which has received at least 25,000 of them; a political opposition might set up a headquarters in the sanctuaries; and powers such as the U.S., France, the U.K. and key Arab states could help organize, train and supply fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army and other groups there. This would send a powerful signal to Assad that the noose was tightening. A foreign presence on Syrian soil might shake the regime and accelerate its fragmentation.

To have even a chance of working, the right conditions would have to be present. Those would include full Turkish buy-in and an international mandate legitimizing intervention, preferably a resolution of the UN Security Council. Most important would be a sustained military commitment to protect the zones and the corridors leading to them. This would require air patrols and thus the suppression of Syrian air defenses. It would also mean carrying out offensive air strikes against the regime’s forces, if the Syrians respond militarily, and ultimately securing Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons to prevent their use against coalition troops.

Even if all that could be achieved (and it probably couldn’t), safe zones are real headaches. Protecting these areas from the air might not be possible and would thus require boots on the ground. The farther coalition forces got from Turkey’s border, the harder and messier this would be. Once in, there would be no choice but to prevail. Declaring safe zones without having the means and will to protect them could lead to a repeat of the 1995 tragedy in Bosnia where UN peacekeepers couldn’t protect civilians in UN designated safe zones from Bosnian Serb massacres.

It took eight months to bring down Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. And the advantages that effort enjoyed -- French enthusiasm, Russian acquiescence, a Security Council mandate, and a tin-pot dictator with no serious military, air defenses or weapons of mass destruction -- don’t apply to Syria. Plus the NATO after-action report on Libya -- with its accounts of faulty information sharing; a paucity of military analysts and planners; heavy reliance on American know-how; and a lack of aircraft required to intercept electronic communications -- doesn’t inspire confidence in another coalition mission. The report suggests that, unlike Libya, Syria would have to be a U.S.-dominated operation.

Arguments Against Inaction

I’ve heard all the arguments against inaction: It’s morally wrong to let the murderous Assad regime continue killing; toppling Assad will weaken Iran grievously; Syria is more important than Libya; the longer the killing continues, the greater the chances of regional instability, even war.

They are all forceful. Watching the killing over the past year has been heartbreaking -- sensing it will continue, even worse.

But let’s be very clear with ourselves. If the case for intervention is so compelling, then the U.S. should lead and develop a strategy geared to the real task: removing Assad quickly so that a political transition to something better can result. Otherwise, we should stop pretending we’re serious about quickly and dramatically changing the balance of power in favor of the rebels. In this case, we should stick to a more modest approach, building up political and economic pressures against the regime.

And if we do make Syria our priority, we have to accept the costs: To maintain the pressure against Iran’s nuclear program, we’ll need the Russians and the Chinese on board, but we won’t get them to support both our policies on Iran and Syria.

Above all, we shouldn’t delude ourselves. The creation of safe zones will lead to our full military involvement in the Syrian crisis. If we’re prepared to go in this direction, fine. But we can’t let our moral outrage push us into embracing a plan, thinking we can get rid of Assad on the cheap. We can’t.

(Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served both Republican and Democratic secretaries of State as a Middle East negotiator and analyst. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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