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US Troops Should Create Syrian 'Safe Zones,' Says Petraeus

Former CIA director David Petraeus thinks Syrian enclaves protected by US troops could enable the opposition to rebuild. But so-called safe zones have a very mixed record.
September 24, 2015, 12:17pm
US troops training Iraqi soldiers in September 2010. Photo by Khalil Al-A'Nei/EPA

The former general who brought order out of chaos in Iraq years ago believes the United States should carve out safe zones in Syria, to reduce violence and stem the flow of refugees flooding into Europe and elsewhere.

"I would support the establishment of enclaves in Syria protected by coalition air power where a moderate Sunni force could be supported and where additional forces could be trained, internally displaced persons could find refuge and the Syrian opposition could organize," said David Petraeus in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

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A former four-star general and CIA director, Petraeus lost his job three years ago when he revealed that he shared classified information with a married US Army reserve officer researching a book about him. He was sentenced to two years of probation and fined $100,000. He now works at KKR, a private equity firm.

Petraeus' claim to fame was leading the so-called surge in Iraq in 2007 after a particularly bloody year of fighting between American troops and the many militias that had sprung up in the turmoil following the 2003 invasion of the country.

The surge is widely credited with restoring order to Iraq until the Islamic State's rise to power last year. In his Senate testimony, Petraeus expressed disappointment with how things had disintegrated and blamed his former boss, President Barack Obama, for the situation.

"It is frequently said that there is no military solution to Syria or the other conflicts roiling the Middle East," Petraeus said, presumably referring to Obama's reluctance to use military force in the region. "This may be true, but it is also misleading. For, in every case, if there is to be any hope of a political settlement, a certain military and security context is required, and that context will not materialize on its own. We and our partners need to facilitate it, and over the past four years, we have not done so."

But Obama has likely considered the safe zone idea.

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In July, after the White House announced a deal to use a Turkish air base to strike against IS, US officials denied reports that the deal included establishing safe zones in Syria — a back and forth that Bloomberg columnist Josh Rogin said symbolized Obama's disorganized approach to the region.

The president's reticence might be due to the fact safe zones have a very mixed record.

Three years ago, when Turkey first requested that the United Nations (UN) set up safe zones in Syria as the first tide of refugees was rushing over its border, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said international law gave everyone the right to cross borders when fleeing violence. Safe zones, on the other hand, often trapped refugees in dangerous places, he said.

"This is a right that must not be jeopardized, for instance, through the establishment of so-called safe havens or other similar arrangements," said Guterres. "Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas."

In 1995, UN troops supposedly operating safe zones failed to protect Bosnians during the Srebrenica massacre. In 1994, the UN sought to set up safe zones to protect Rwandans in their country's bloody civil war. This effort also failed to prevent genocide.

But some safe zones have worked well, said James F. Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Iraq and Baghdad under ex-President George W. Bush who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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The US established a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in the early 1990s that gave Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers a fighting chance against Saddam Hussein's forces. Now an autonomous region of Iraq, Kurdistan was a shining example of a moderate, pro-American Islamic regime, he said.

"Safe havens run by wimpy UN organizations with flowers coming out of their gun barrels have a bad reputation," Jeffrey told VICE News. "In Kurdistan, it was a startling success."

Jeffrey rattled off what the safe zones would entail: Turkish troops would protect the refugees until American advisors trained a local fighting force. American planes would ward off Syrian government and IS forces. Aid agencies and nonprofits would provide shelter and food.

As Syrian refugees continue to flood into Turkey, Lebanon and Europe, Jeffrey believed Obama should give them a credible option for staying home.

"This is just a tremendously complicated Middle East, but that's not a reason to wash your hands," said Jeffrey. "If you are waiting to engage where there is no risk, all of the sides are lined up and victory is assured, you are never going to engage in the Middle East."

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr