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Kremlin Cautious On U.S. Plan For Syria 'Safe Zones'

  • RFE/RL

Syrian children at a temporary refugee camp in Syria

Russia has reacted cautiously to a U.S. plan for "safe zones" in Syria, saying that Washington did not consult with Moscow on the matter and that all possible consequences should be examined.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on January 25 he intended to set up such zones for refugees in Syria, a move related to his sweeping plans to limit immigration to the United States.

Reports say Trump is directing the Pentagon and State Department to produce a plan within three months, according to a draft executive order he is expected to sign in the coming days.

"No, our American partners did not consult with us," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 26. "It's a sovereign decision."

Peskov said it was necessary to "thoroughly calculate all possible consequences" and that "it's important that this [plan] does not exacerbate the situation with refugees."

Turkey and a Syrian Islamist group say they have always supported the idea of safe zones in Syria, but would need to review the U.S. plan before commenting.

"We support any plan to protect civilians, but we will have to know details of this plan," Yasser al-Youssef of the Nureddine al-Zinki faction told the dpa news agency.

Despite some skepticism, Youssef also said the proposal could "be a blow to the Russian-Iranian expansionist plan in Syria."

Moscow and Tehran back President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the six-year-old Syrian war, while Ankara supports the opposition.

"What's important is the results of this study and what kind of recommendation will come out," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu said.

"Turkey has from the start suggested this. Jarabulus is the best example," he said, referring to a Syrian border town taken in August by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels from Islamic State fighters.

Qatar, another backer of rebels fighting Assad’s government, welcomed Trump's comments.

The state news agency QNA quoted Foreign Ministry official Ahmad al-Rumaihi as emphasizing "the need to provide safe havens in Syria and to impose no-fly zones to ensure the safety of civilians."

In the Lebanese capital, Beirut, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said it was too early to comment on the U.S. plan for safe zones in Syria. The bloc "will consider plans when they come," she said.

In an interview with ABC News broadcast late on January 25, Trump said he would "absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people," stressing that he decided on the plan after watching the European Union struggle with a major refugee crisis spawned in large part by the Syrian civil war.

"I think that Europe has made a tremendous mistake by allowing these millions of people to go into Germany and various other countries," Trump told ABC.

Trump indicated that he sees the establishment of safe zones in Syria as one way of stemming what he sees as a threat of terrorism from admitting refugees and other immigrants or visitors from Muslim countries into the United States.

U.S. media are reporting that an executive order on safe zones that Trump is readying will be issued in conjunction with separate orders halting all resettlement of refugees from Syria in the United States, and suspending U.S. visas for people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and other select Muslim countries until an aggressive system of vetting is in place.

Reuters claims to have seen the draft executive order on safe zones.

It said the order requires the Pentagon and State Department to come up with a plan within 90 days "to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement."

Reuters and AP said the document gives no details on what would constitute a safe zone, exactly where they might be set up, and who would defend them.

Jordan, Turkey, and other neighboring countries already host millions of Syrian refugees.

While various U.S. politicians have raised the possibility of establishing safe zones in Syria, including Trump's Democratic opponent in the November presidential election, Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama resisted the proposal out of concern that it would pull the United States more deeply into the six-year-old civil war in Syria and possibly lead to clashes with Russian forces waging an air campaign there.

The clashes could occur if Trump chooses to enforce "no fly" restrictions over the safe zones he is planning.

Moreover, U.S. ground forces likely would also be needed to protect civilians in the zones, greatly increasing the cost of intervention both in terms of money spent and lives at risk.

U.S. military officials have long warned that the creation of no-fly or safe zones inside Syria would require far more resources than those already devoted to fighting against the Islamic State in Syria, and it would be difficult to ensure that militants do not infiltrate the zones amid the chaos of Syria's civil war.

While campaigning, Trump suggested that he would ask wealthy Persian Gulf states to help pay for such safe havens.

On Trump's broader anti-immigration plans, Reuters reported that Trump's draft executive order temporarily barring refugees from Syria and other countries unless they are persecuted religious minorities asserts that the measures are needed to "protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals."

AP reported that the draft order says its purpose is to make sure anyone allowed to enter the United States doesn't "bear hostile attitudes toward our country and its founding principles."

"We cannot, and should not, admit into our country those who do not support the U.S. Constitution or those who place violent religious edicts over American law," Trump states in the order, according to AP.

Human rights groups denounced Trump's anti-immigrant plans.

"The president needs to know he's an absolute fool for fostering this kind of hostility in his first few days. This will inflame violence against Americans around the world," said Seth Kaper-Dale, a pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey, which he said helped resettle 28 refugee and asylum-seeking families in the state last year.

"Never before in our country's history have we purposely, as a matter of policy, imposed a ban on immigrants or refugees on the basis of religion," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, calling it "a disturbing confirmation of Islamophobia" that was evident throughout Trump's presidential campaign.

"Actions to build a wall around us, criminalize a religion, and to strike fear in the heart of immigrants make Trump's America look more like a police state than the republic we truly are," said Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

With reporting by ABC, Reuters, and AP
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