President Donald Trump's push to create safe zones in Syria could force him to make some risky decisions about how far to go to protect refugees, including shooting down Syrian or Russian aircraft or committing thousands of US troops, experts said.
Trump said on Wednesday he "will absolutely do safe zones in Syria" for refugees fleeing violence. According to a document seen by Reuters, he is expected in the coming days to order the Pentagon and the State Department to draft a plan to create such zones in Syria and nearby nations.
The document did not spell out what would make a safe zone "safe" and whether it would protect refugees only from threats on the ground, such as jihadist fighters, or whether Trump envisions a no-fly zone policed by America and its allies.
If it is a no-fly zone, without negotiating some agreement with Russia Trump would have to decide whether to give the US military the authority to shoot down Syrian or Russian aircraft if they posed a threat to people in that zone, which his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, refused to do.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Trump did not consult with Russia and warned that the consequences of such a plan "ought to be weighed up." "It is important that this (the plan) does not exacerbate the situation with refugees," he said.
Tens of thousands of troops
Trump's call for a plan for safe zones is part of a larger directive expected to be signed in coming days that includes a temporary ban on most refugees to the US and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries deemed to pose a terrorism threat.
During and after the presidential campaign, Trump called for no-fly zones to harbour Syrian refugees as an alternative to allowing them into the US. Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to screen Syrian immigrants entering the US to ensure they had no militant ties.
Any safe zone in Syria guaranteed by the US would almost certainly require some degree of US military protection. Securing the ground alone would require thousands of troops, former US officials and experts say.
Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank, cautioned that a safe zone inside Syria could become a diplomatic albatross that would force a Trump administration to juggle a host of ethnic and political tensions in Syria indefinitely. Such a zone also would be expensive, given the need to house, feed, educate and provide medical care to the refugees.
The draft document gave no details on what would constitute a safe zone, where one might be set up and who would defend it.
Jordan, Turkey and other neighbouring countries already host millions of Syrian refugees. The Turkish government pressed Obama, without success, to create a no-fly zone on Syria's border with Turkey but now is at odds with Washington over its support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.