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Trump Renews Consideration Of Military 'Safe Zones' In Syria

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump has brought back an old idea about intervening in the Syrian civil war. Here's what he told ABC News in his first TV interview since the inauguration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'll absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people.

SHAPIRO: Safe zones to protect civilians in Syria - Trump says he is planning to ask the Pentagon and State Department to come up with recommendations for how the U.S. could do that. Joining us now to go over this idea is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here in the studio. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And also NPR's Middle East correspondent Alice Fordham on the line from Beirut. Hi, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Tom, first describe what exactly these safe zones would be.

BOWMAN: A safe zone is what it sounds like. It's a piece of land that would be protected by U.S. soldiers or someone else. And you would also have to guard that piece of land from people coming in. You would also have to protect it from the air, so you would have to have a certain number of U.S. aircraft.

Now, this was raised back in 2013 by the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. He estimated it would cost about a billion dollars a month to create this safe zone in this piece of land somewhere in Syria.

SHAPIRO: So if this would require many more troops, aircraft, drones, that sounds like a much bigger military commitment than the U.S. has been willing to make in Syria so far.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. Right now in Syria, you have a certain number of trainers, hundreds of special operators in Syria helping the Syrian Arab rebels and also the Kurdish fighters push toward the city of Raqqa in Syria. They've been there for months now. But of course this would be a much, much larger operation, thousands of troops.

SHAPIRO: Alice, you've spent a good bit of time in Syria. Can you tell us about where these safe zones might be and how they would actually work on the ground?

FORDHAM: Sure, Ari. Well, as Tom says, this has been under discussion for many years. And as versions of this have been raised, the areas of Syria that they usually talk about are the northern strip along the border with Turkey and then the chunk in the south on the border with Jordan that is also held by rebels.

Now, in terms of how acceptable a safe zone might be to the regime and to its Russian and Iranian allies and to Turkey, which generally backs the rebels but has better relations with Russia, particularly, than it has done, there are some places where this might be more feasible than others.

For example, Turkey has already intervened in the Euphrates River Valley. It's conducted military operations there, cleared ISIS out of a few towns. And now it has Turkish-backed militias and police running a few places there. That's unlikely to have happened if Assad and his backers were really opposed to it, so a safe zone in that area might be feasible without really having to take on Russia, Iran and Assad.

But then there's other places where it's a very different story, like the province of Idlib, for example, which has some very extreme jihadi rebels fighting there and where the regime and its backers have shown no interest in pursuing anything really other than a military solution in that place.

SHAPIRO: We should say that because Donald Trump has not put out any formal guidance on this, we don't know exactly what he has in mind. Tom, when the Obama administration considered this, what did they conclude?

BOWMAN: Well, they concluded it was very difficult to do. The Pentagon, again, pushed back on this. They said it would cost billions of dollars. It would take thousands of troops. People like Senator John McCain really wanted to do this, was leaning forward on this, but the Obama administration decided it was too difficult to do. So they kind of scrapped it.

And this has been discussed really, again, for the past three and a half years. It keeps coming up every few months. It came up during the campaign. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump suggested safe zones, no-fly zones. But again, it hasn't happened yet because of the difficulty.

SHAPIRO: One thing that I don't understand, Alice - if these safe zones might well be on the border of Turkey or the border of Lebanon or Jordan, why can't the Turks, the Lebanese, the Jordanians do this? Why do the Americans need to get involved in such a large way?

FORDHAM: Well, to a certain extent, they already have, Ari. Actually, over the past year or so, Turkey and Jordan have really closed their borders much more tightly to refugees in a way that has been criticized by some people as being rather inhumane. But that does mean that actually the flow of refugees out of these countries is much lower.

In fact, if the goal of this exercise is to reduce the number of Syrian refugees that exist in the world outside Syria, you'd have to create zones that are so safe that people who are currently Syrian refugees would be happy to actually go back inside Syria. And speaking to refugees who are very afraid of the situation there, that would require a real sea change in what's happening in Syria.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Alice Fordham speaking with us from Beirut and also Tom Bowman here in the studio. Thanks to both of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR SONG, "NEVERGREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.