The Problems with Safe Zones

The president-elect has suggested that we will be able to create “safe zones” in Syria:

“We’re going to build safe zones,” he told supporters at a rally in Florida. “We’re going to get the Gulf States to pay for the safe zones.”

First, as a side note, what is it with Trump and the assumption that the US is going to dictate to the whole world about paying for things?

Second, and more to the point, this idea is not a very good one, despite the fact that it sounds nice.

International relations professor Steve Saideman at Carleton University explains why in a list worth reading:  Why Safe Zones are Moronic, Oxy and Otherwise.

The key point:

Here is the big one: safe zones would require….. combat.  We might also call it war.  It would require the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers to create spaces where the Syrian army cannot go AND where the Syrian artillery cannot fire.  How do you prevent Syrian artillery from firing into a safe zone?  Glad you asked.  Either by providing artillery that engages in counter-battery fire or by airstrikes.  How does that work if Russians happen to be near the Syrian artillery?  Are we prepared to kill Russians in order to create AND MAINTAIN safe zones.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, US Politics, World Politics, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Gustopher says:

    Safe zones didn’t work out so well in Bosnia, and I don’t see them working out well in Syria either, without some major changes.

    One approach might be to arm the safe zone to the teeth — but I expect that just makes the safe zone a training camp.

    Another approach might be to create a buffer zone around the safe zone that is large enough to keep the safe zone safe. Not sure we want to be in the business of bombing the living crap out of anything that goes into that safe zone though. It might also lead to partitioning Syria.

    I’m not opposed to trying to make safe zones workable, but they definitely won’t work as they were implemented in Bosnia.

  2. James Pearce says:

    I never expected good, or even modern, ideas from Trump. But then again, we’re all assuming that the problem he wants to tackle is “how do we protect these civilians?”

    When can we assume that if you propose “safe zones” that you don’t actually care about protecting civilians?

  3. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    First, as a side note, what is it with Trump and the assumption that the US is going to dictate to the whole world about paying for things?

    I think it’s the Trump version of “free lunch.” Related to Saideman’s comment, it also provides cover when the thing turns into a fiasco–“we didn’t build that, they did, not our fault they couldn’t get it done. We woudda.”

    @James Pearce: I think with Trump that you can presume he doesn’t care as soon as his lips start moving. This feature may be true for virtually any topic.

  4. James Pearce says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I think with Trump that you can presume he doesn’t care as soon as his lips start moving.

    Ah, but the question then becomes, does Donald Trump really not care? Or does he care about something else?

    I mean, I’m reasonably sure that if he’s proposing safe zones, he doesn’t care about protecting the lives of Syrian civilians, because “safe zones” don’t protect lives. They do, however, make it easier to kill civilians, seeing that they all are collected in one non-threatening place, waiting to be starved or massacred.

    Maybe that’s what he cares about.

    I mean, here are our options:

    A) Donald Trump is ignorant and believes the problems with “safe zones” have been ones of implementation rather than conception.

    B) Donald Trump has no idea on what to do with Syria, so he comes up with these half-baked low-cost solutions. To him, “safe zones” are “body cameras,” magical little devices that make problems go away.


    C) Trump supports “safe zones” because he wants to kill civilians.

    I think a combo of A and B is the more likely scenario. But where does he come out looking good?

  5. wr says:

    If you want to build a safe zone for Syrians that is actually safe, you have to build it in Nebraska.

    No, scratch that. Too many Republicans.

    Gotta do it in California.

  6. Hal_10000 says:

    The problem with Syria is that, short of putting boots on the ground and risking a war with Russia, there’s not much we can do. Everything we have done to this point has only made things worse.

  7. Franklin says:

    Oh, thanks goodness, I mistakenly thought this post was going to be about safe spaces.