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UN Refugee Chief Doubtful About Trump Plan For 'Safe Zones' In Syria

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visits a shelter for displaced Syrians in Jibreen, on the outskirts of Aleppo, on February 1.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants to establish safe zones for refugees in Syria to discourage them from fleeing to other countries, but a top United Nations official says that won't work.

"Frankly, I don't see in Syria the conditions" to create successful safe zones, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on February 3.

"With the fragmentation, the number of actors, the presence of terrorist groups, it's not the right place to think of that solution," he said.

Grandi made his comments on a visit to Lebanon, where President Michel Aoun endorsed the idea of safe zones and said world powers should work with the Syrian government to create such zones so Syrians can return to their country.

At least 1 million Syrians have fled since 2011 into Lebanon, which has an estimated total population of less than 6 million.

The war has divided Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, various rebel groups fighting to unseat him, Kurdish militia, and Islamic State militants.

Trump is expected to soon order the Pentagon and the State Department to craft a plan for safe zones, a move that could require significantly more U.S. military involvement in Syria.

Trump has not provided details about the proposed zones, except to say he would try to persuade Persian Gulf states to pay for them.

The Pentagon has warned that policing them would be difficult in a war zone filled with armed groups.

The UN refugee chief, who just completed a visit to Syria, said his agency has no information about the Trump safe zone plans, but he expressed opposition to the idea.

"Let's not waste time planning safe zones that will not be set up because they will not be safe enough for people to go back," Grandi said. "Let's concentrate on making peace so that everything becomes safe. That should be the investment."

The Syrian government said earlier this week that any attempt to create safe zones for refugees without coordinating with Damascus would be "unsafe" and violate Syria's sovereignty.

Syrian rebel backers such as Qatar have welcomed Trump's support for safe zones. Turkey -- which has proposed safe zones in the past -- says it is waiting to see what Trump proposes.

Turkey is the country that currently hosts the most Syrian refugees, estimated at nearly 3 million.

Trump discussed safe zones in a meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Washington on February 2. Jordan is host to some 650,000 Syrian refugees.

The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the most pressing in the world. The six-year war there has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made more than half of Syrians homeless, creating the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Trump barred all Syrian refugees from the United States indefinitely as part of sweeping anti-immigration restrictions announced a week ago.

He had originally suggested creating Syrian safe zones as an alternative to resettling Syrian refugees in the United States.

The UN estimates that around 20,000 refugees worldwide have been affected by Trump's suspension of the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days, a move Grandi called a "dangerous weakening" of protections for refugees.

"These are people that flee from danger. They are not dangerous themselves," he said.

"We are taking exception to discrimination," he said. "All people that are vulnerable, irrespective of their ethnic or religious affiliations, should be given a chance to benefit from this program."

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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