The Trump administration’s expressed interest in setting up safe zones for civilians in Syria was greeted Thursday with caution by Russia and Turkey, which have taken the lead in the latest peace efforts to end the Mideast country’s devastating six-year war.
Turkey said it had always supported the idea, but both Ankara and Moscow warned such plans would require careful consideration. A senior European Union official said the bloc would consider such plans “when they come.”
The idea of safe zones, proposed by both Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton during the U.S. election campaign, was ruled out by the Obama administration for fear it would bring the United States into direct conflict with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia, which has been waging an air campaign to aid Assad’s forces since September 2015.
In October, the Russian military specifically warned the U.S. against striking Syrian government forces, saying its air defense weapons in Syria would fend off any attack.
The recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, a key backer of Syrian rebels which now has thousands of troops in northern Syria, in theory makes the creation of safe zones more achievable. So does Trump’s pledge to mend ties with Moscow.
But enforcing them could risk pulling in the U.S. deeper into Syria’s conflict and heightens the risk of an inadvertent clash in Syria’s crowded skies involving warplanes from various countries bombing targets in Syria.
There was no indication on how a safe-zone would look or how it would be enforced.
Asked to comment on a draft executive order that President Trump is expected to sign this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said it was important to “weigh all possible consequences” of the measure.
Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters that the U.S. hasn’t consulted with Russia on the subject and noted that “it’s important not to exacerbate the situation with refugees.”
While suspending visas for Syrians and others, the order is also expected to direct the Pentagon and the State Department to produce a plan for safe zones in Syria and the surrounding area within 90 days. No further details were immediately known.
A Turkish official said his country has always supported the idea of safe zones in Syria but would need to review any U.S. plans before commenting. Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu told reporters that Turkey has “seen the reports on a request for a study on the safe zone,” adding that “what is important is to see the result of these studies.”
He pointed to the Syrian city of Jarablus, near the Turkish border, where thousands of Syrians have returned after Turkish-backed opposition forces drove out the Islamic State group, as a good example of what can be achieved.
Syrian rebels and opposition groups have long called for safe zones to protect them from Syrian government airstrikes.
“The previous (U.S.) administration has consistently dragged its feet on the subject,” said Yasser al-Youssef, a leading member of the Noureddin el-Zinki rebel group, which operates mainly in northern Syria. “Such a move would serve to reshuffle the cards … and undercut Russian” influence in Syria.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking in Beirut, said it was too early to comment. “I will not comment on things … that are for the moment reports of the beginnings of a process of reflection,” she said. “We will consider plans when they come.”
She said the EU was mainly concerned with pushing a political solution to Syria’s six-year-old war so that a political transition could begin and “every single Syrian inside or outside Syria” can return home.
Russia has welcomed Trump’s pledge to mend ties with Moscow and potentially partner with it against the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
But Trump has provided few details about how he plans to approach Syria’s complex conflict, and the Kremlin, which was bitterly at odds with the Obama administration, has said that rebuilding trust will take time.
Peskov said no agreement has been reached on a Trump-Putin phone call and that there have been no contacts between their administrations yet beyond routine diplomatic exchanges.
Also Thursday, Syrian rebel factions that recently have come under attack by al-Qaida’s affiliate in the country joined forces against the extremist group’s assault in northern Syria.
Five rebel groups, some of which participated in talks with Syrian government representatives in Kazakhstan this week, joined the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group to fight against the al-Qaida affiliate, known as Fatah al-Sham Front and previously, the Nusra Front.
The clashes across northern Syria in the past few days in some of the worst rebel infighting in recent years.
Fatah al-Sham is excluded from a cease-fire that has been in place in Syria since Dec. 30. Russia, Iran and Turkey, which sponsored the Astana talks, have been urging rebel factions to break militarily with al-Qaida.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.