Safe Zones and Illusory Promises

Donald Trump is not a humanitarian by nature. He is a hard-headed businessman, a guy for whom winning, in a notably zero-sum way, is all.

He wants the United States to win at the expense of everyone else – be it in trade or in war. Morally, the president says he will stop at nothing to achieve this ambition.

He wants to ‘cut the head off ISIS and take their oil’. Indeed, Trump bemoans the fact that the United States did not take the oil of Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. More relevant for the present day, Trump says he wants to kill the families of ‘terrorists’, and that he will licence torture, if it gives the United States a global edge.

All of this is on the record; an essential part of the president’s image. Why, then, has he suddenly developed an apparent desire to construct safe zones in Syria, refuges for its beleaguered population, a place where civilians might be protected from barrel bombs and chemical weapons attacks and the simple, commonplace barbarity of civil war?

Well, for one, it seems Trump has decided to approach Syria’s humanitarian crisis in the same manner he approaches everything: someone else can be found to do the work, bullied into undertaking the heavy lifting. There will be safe zones, he proclaims, and the Saudis will pay for them.

This looks to be an ill-thought out, illusory promise. Trump appears fundamentally insincere in this newly-emerging desire to protect Syrians. But even if he has had a monumental change of heart, and developed an internationalist sensibility, the practicalities of it will undoubtedly put a stop to this embryonic attempt to protect civilians.

Trump’s plan – reiterated last week – is lacking in detail. All that seems certain, at least as far as he can be believed, is that the Saudis and others would pay. Announced at a post-victory rally, the place Trump seems most at home, the scheme did not deviate from the idea first proposed by the president a while ago.

It did not deviate mainly because so little was said in each instance that there was barely space for any divergence. Once again: there will be safe zones in Syria, and other people will pay.

The essential problem with this formulation is immediately obvious. Much like the case of Mexico apparently paying for a proposed border wall, it seems unlikely in the extreme that other countries would provide the capital, and would consent to fund an American plan for safe zones on the basis of little more than goodwill.

Even though in theory King Salman of Saudi Arabia has agreed to provide some logistical and financial support for Trump’s idea, this means little.

This is still a policy dreamt up to demonstrate humanitarian bona fides, one which has not been planned so much as enunciated hurriedly and vaguely.

The sense that the Trump administration is dependent on its president’s ad hoc pronouncements, particularly at rallies, cannot be shaken. This could be little more than an off the cuff remark. But still, this is one off the cuff remark which bears the stamp of office. Unlike the careless utterances of the campaign trail, this one will not be forgotten. It cannot be quietly dropped. There are lives at stake, after all.

This moral pressure means little, however. President Trump does not appear bound by normal rules. He is not a politician; he treats his public comments less like promises and more like aspirations, vague statements of intent, given more in hope than expectation.

And to think this idea has legs, one would have to be uncommonly hopeful. Even if this idea were to advance beyond scrappy, back-of-the-envelope planning, it would no doubt be opposed by both Iran and Russia, each of which have a stake in America and its allies avoiding entanglement in Syria.

When Saudi Arabia’s defence minister suggested that it could more directly aid Syrian rebels against IS last year, this caused widespread anxiety and opposition – not least because Saudi-backed rebels could have used this support against the Assad regime.

America faces a choice in Syria: either abandon the country to the regime and its allies, or seek to assert its own influence. The United States has tried to use proxies, mainly Kurdish, but this has not had the desired effect. That route is partial, both by being strategically incomplete and by favouring only one part of a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society.

Trump has signalled his happiness with the former conclusion, and to change tack now would be profoundly inconsistent.

In any case, in the face of fierce opposition from Iran and Russia, Trump will fold. He cares little for Syria and Syrians, and spent the campaign last year insulting the Saudis. He could probably save face by citing his general willingness to make nice with Russia.

Thus he will be able to claim that he tried, and still get out of doing anything. This is the best result for someone like Trump; claiming good intentions while failing to live up to them in practice. In business, sometimes the appearance of possessing a quality – sincerity, goodwill, morality – can be as good as doing so in reality.

Trump will no doubt try to apply this way of doing business – his way of doing business – to the arena of international relations. He will likely fail, both on his own terms and on any more concrete analysis. But for him, at this early stage, illusory promises, like that of safe zones, are something of an ideal tool. The rest of the world would do better than to heed them.

Rather than trusting the promises of this president or heaping hopes on this scheme, the international community ought to try a different tack. It should attempt something entirely independent, and do so fast, lest more Syrian lives pay the price for continued American indifference to their fates.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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