WASHINGTON, D.C. – After President Donald Trump pushed for the creation of safe zones for refugees in the Middle East, advocates and humanitarian aid groups are divided over whether the policy will work.
“We think it’s within the United States’s national security interests to support the creation of safe zones to at least stop the exodus of people leaving Syria and move that conflict more toward a resolution which is favorable to Christians,” Phillippe Nassif, executive director of the group In Defense of Christians, told CNA of Trump’s proposal.
However, Bill O’Keefe, vice president of government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, said that “the Syrian conflict is such a hornet’s nest of proxy wars, and to think that in the midst of that a safe zone will be safe indefinitely is just unlikely.”
President Trump was expected to call for the establishment of safe zones in the Middle East in his recent executive order that halted U.S. refugee admissions, but that policy was left out of the final draft of the order.
Nevertheless, Trump has reportedly discussed setting up safe zones in Syria and Yemen with regional leaders, the King of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
“Safe zones” would be areas set up in the war-torn countries for various innocent persons displaced by the conflict to live in security as they wait to return home.
They would require “troops on the ground and a no-fly zone” to maintain security, Nassif explained. They wouldn’t exclusively be set up in rural areas, but could be placed on fertile land or in urban areas to provide economic incentives for the population and even return displaced persons to their homes.
The Syrian conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel factions has lasted for almost six years with the death toll in the hundreds of thousands. It has created the world’s largest refugee crisis, with around five million refugees having fled the country and over six million displaced persons living within the country’s borders.
One million registered refugees live in neighboring Lebanon – with about half a million unregistered refugees, Nassif told CNA – and many have also fled to Turkey, Jordan, and Europe as well.
This has created an unsustainable refugee situation, Nassif argued, one that threatens to destabilize the region around Syria and spread the conflict to those countries as well.
“We’re really concerned about Lebanon,” he said of the country, where an estimated one in four persons is a refugee.
“It is a perfect example of a country where Christians and Muslims co-exist in the region. There’s a Christian president in the country, but we’re very worried that this huge burden on the state and economic and a security burden is not alleviated any time soon, that Lebanon will have its own problems and potential collapse.”
Safe zones, he argued, would stem the flow of refugees from Syria by giving them a temporary secure place to reside. It would ease the burden on neighboring countries that shelter refugees, and would keep Syrians relatively close to their homes to one day return there.
However, Catholic Relief Services expressed that they are “circumspect” on the U.S. establishing safe zones in Syria and Yemen, while still praising the Trump administration for their “interest” in caring for the most vulnerable populations in Syria.
“Once you declare a safe zone, you’re responsible for keeping the people inside safe for as long as necessary,” Bill O’Keefe told CNA, adding that they “can be extremely expensive and difficult to sustain.”
With so many regional actors like Turkey and Iran involved in the Syrian conflict and waging “proxy wars” there, people inside safe zones could still be at high risk of bombings and attacks, he said.
Placing so many refugees in one place could make these vulnerable populations even more of a target to terror groups and entities that want to kill them, he added.
“When you concentrate the innocent and the vulnerable together, they can become more of a target and even if there’s a sincere effort at providing a security umbrella, you have a lot of vulnerable people concentrated in a very defined area, and for those who want to harm those people, in some ways it’s actually easier,” he said.
And if they are set up for an indefinite period of time, safe zones may not be a lasting solution for families who just want to live a “normal life.”
If the conflict does not end, the zones may instead be dead-ends “where families can’t earn a living, where children can’t go to school,” he said, and the situation “doesn’t prepare them to rebuild their society and to go back and play a productive role in wherever they are.”
Rather, the U.S. should put its energy into pursuing peace at the local and regional levels in Syria and the Middle East, he insisted.
“We certainly urge our government to expend the last ounce of diplomatic energy on working with the parties to the conflict” as well as the “regional and global actors that are, in one way or another, engaged in various proxy battles” in Syria, O’Keefe said.
“Adequate humanitarian assistance” must also be provided to displaced persons in Syria and neighboring countries, he insisted.
However, although safe zones may be risky they are still preferable to the current situation on the ground for many embattled religious and ethnic minorities, Nassif said.
“It’s basically a free-for-all in Syria. And it’s total chaos on the ground. All of these minorities are being targeted left and right by everybody and they’re being scapegoated,” he said, noting the “exodus” of Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and Alowites from the country.
“The longer the conflict goes in Syria, the more likely Christians are going to just be continuing to leave at the rate they’ve been leaving from the country,” he said.