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Limitations to the New United States’ Safe Zone Policy

February 2, 2017

Migrants and refugees on a rubber boat receive life jackets during a rescue operation by the crew of the Topaz Responder, a rescue ship run by Maltese NGO 'Moas' and the Italian Red Cross, on November 4, 2016 off the coast of Libya. / AFP / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

Refugee camps could become hot beds for radicalization

Few people willingly choose to abandon their homes. Fleeing one’s country, and traveling across the world to find safety in a foreign land takes its toll. The odyssey of a refugee involves hardship, poverty, isolation, and oftentimes danger.

What’s more, once they arrive in a safe country, refugees often find themselves unwelcome, the citizens of the host nation often concerned over an influx of foreign culture and any impact it might have on domestic security. A perception among US voters that too many migrants were arriving on American soil was a significant part of the fuel which propelled Donald Trump to the presidency.

So, you might think that a shift in US policy towards the creation of safe zones for refugees in Syria, as a substitute for granting them entry into the country, would be a sign of hope. For both the millions displaced by the conflict and for Trump supporters concerned about immigration and the security of the United States it might offer an alternative solution.

Yet it might also prove to be a false hope in the long run, a number of security experts and academics have suggested to The Media Line.

Trump campaigned on a platform to ‘put America first’ and spoke critically of the US decision to become heavily involved in Iraq, a foreign policy which, some have argued, led to the creation of the Islamic State (ISIS) and cost the US greatly in casualties and dollars. Yet if the administration is genuine about building safe zones in Syria then it will likely require an upsurge in US military presence in the Middle East.

“Depending on the size of the safe zone you could be talking up to a brigade combat team mission to run this thing… [that’s] one billion dollars a month,” David Lamm, the deputy director of the US-based Near-East South-Asia Center for Strategic Studies, and a former infantry officer, told The Media Line. Additionally, it would mean putting US service personnel in harm’s way again.

“An air [patrol] over a piece of real estate is essentially [just] a no-fly zone. If you don’t have anything on the ground, in my view as a military planner, then it’s not a safe zone,” Lamm suggested.

There are two military elements to such an operation. The first would be control of the air space above the safe haven, something that could be achieved if tacit approval from Russia and Turkey are granted. The second component is “boots on the ground.” That presence would be crucial to protecting civilians and ensuring that armed groups are not able to infiltrate the newly created havens.

Lamm is clear that his preferred choice for an infantry force to control any protected zone would be US troops, but there are other options. Local military units – be they Free Syrian Army, the Syrian regime, moderate Islamists or anything in-between – could provide security for small pockets of civilians who match their own sectarian identity.

This would then result in a patchwork of enclaves of civilians, each guarded by an armed group, and would essentially be no different to the current situation on the ground, Ewan Lawson, a senior research fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, told The Media Line. The only other option for a ground force would likely be some kind of international peace keeping unit but it is unclear if any state could, or would, put up the troops for what would likely be a difficult and lengthy operation. Flashbacks to Bosnia would keep many potential contributors away.

“Ultimately, for this to work you really need a cessation of the conflict completely,” Lawson, a former air force officer said. “The idea of safe zones was talked about five years ago, not long after the conflict started…that window’s now gone.”

A further problem is that not only could safe zones be a more expensive and complicated policy than they might at first appear, but in the long term they could encourage the types of radical Islamist ideology that many US citizens are concerned about.

Time and time again, in conflicts around the world, the land where refugees are temporarily housed becomes their home for decades to come, as tents are gradually replaced with brick. One of the starkest examples of this is in Palestinian refugee communities in Lebanon where nearly half a million people live, their parents or grandparents having fled during the 1948 war with Israel.

Royce Hutson, an associate professor of social work at Boise State University in Idaho spent time working with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and noticed that factors such as poverty, low job opportunities, and discrimination from a host community can make long term refugees feel powerless. That, along with a lack of security in these camps can lead refugees to “feelings of hopelessness and a feeling that life is outside of their control… [a] dynamic that predisposes one to jihadi narratives,” Hutson said.

The army of young Taliban raised in refugee camps on the Afghan/Pakistan border, or the resilience of Al-Shabab militants among Somali communities living in slums in Kenya, has shown how susceptible desperate people can be to radicalization.

Consigning a generation of Syrians to live in refugee camps would be more harmful than hosting them in Western states, Jean-François Durieux, an associate of the Refugee Law Initiative at the University of London and a former director at UNHCR Geneva, said. “’Safe zones’ inside or near a country at war are a dangerous delusion […] it would be much more cost-effective and peace-producing to resettle a meaningful segment of the refugee population in richer, better-equipped faraway countries,” Durieux told The Media Line.

It is a solution that despite being wrong is widely held, Durieux went on, because “it looks simple and it speaks to those for whom every immigrant, hence every refugee, is a threat.” So often the security concerns faced by the world today are the result of misguided policy a decade or two earlier. Will a future US administration regret allowing millions of angry young men to grow up in refugee camps, vulnerable to the whispers of radical ideology? It’s possible that granting some of them asylum would in fact improve US security down the line.

But not everyone can afford to be so cynical of President Trump’s suggestion that safe zones will become the new US policy on Syria. Kamal Allabwani, a doctor and member of the Syrian opposition has been campaigning for the establishment of exactly that policy for over a year and says refugees from his home are so desperate that they will accept any help they can get.

“We will accept any conditions – without arms, without military groups – we will accept because we are in urgent humanitarian need,” Allabwani told The Media Line. Who organizes and maintains a potential safe zone – be it the US, Russia or the UN – is not important, Allabwani suggested. He noted that the ideas and people were in place to set the project in motion, all that was missing was funds and diplomatic will.

Whether Trump’s new momentum will bring about this will, or whether the new US policy is merely designed to gloss over the controversy surrounding the ban on Syrian refugees, only the President knows.

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