While President Trump has made it much more difficult for people from Middle East and African countries — including Syria and Yemen — deemed to be a terrorist risk to travel to the United States, he has discussed with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the idea of safe zones in Syria and Yemen for those fleeing conflict in those countries. But what is a safe zone and what would it take to create one? As with many of President Trump’s ideas, he is long on rhetoric but short on providing any details. But those details matter, because we are talking about putting the U.S. military in harm’s way.
A safe zone would require — at a minimum — enforcing a no-fly zone to protect civilians from aircraft dropping bombs. As a point of reference, the no-fly zone imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War was estimated to cost about $1 billion a year and required more than 200 military aircraft. In other words, it’s not cheap.
But a safe zone is more than a no-fly zone. If the intended purpose is to protect civilians from harm — such as tank or artillery shells or even small arms fire —a true safe zone would also require boots on the ground to provide security. So the important question is: How many troops?
To begin, let’s assume that a safe zone isn’t just a tent city refugee camp. Rather, it’s an area — such as city — where people can live in relative safety and security.
In Syria, one such city might be Aleppo, which has a population of about 2 million people. By comparison, New York City has more than 8 million people with about 36,000 police officers. So the equivalent force in Aleppo would be about 9,000 troops.
But Aleppo isn’t New York City — it’s a city in the middle of a civil war. So a better — perhaps high-end — estimate for the troop requirement is what would be needed to impose security in a successful counterinsurgency operation. The history of successful counterinsurgency — largely practiced by the British — requires 20 troops per 1,000 civilians. For Aleppo, that would mean 40,000 troops.
If we generously moderate these figures, it might take approximately 25,000 troops — not an inconsequential number and more than the U.S. currently has in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. And we’re talking about just one city, albeit a large one.
Although those troops wouldn’t be engaged in democracy- or nation-building, it’s not clear the American public would support what amounts to another occupation of a Muslim country. There is also the minor detail that it is highly unlikely that the Assad regime in Syria would welcome U.S. troops.
And we cannot ignore the cost. The average cost (from 2008 to 2013) to deploy a soldier in Afghanistan was $1.3 million per year, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. So a reasonable estimate for 25,000 troops to enforce a safe zone for a year is $32.5 billion.
But instead of finding ways to spend even more money as Sen. John McCain has proposed — “$430 billion above current defense plans over the next five years” or approximately $86 billion annually — we need to be thinking about how best to spend a $600 billion defense budget that was more than enough to deter and contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
It’s also important to recognize that those 25,000 troops are those needed to impose security. So the so-called tooth-to-tail ratio (the number of non-combatant personnel needed to support combat personnel) required to support those troops must also be considered. In Iraq, the ratio is about 1:2.5. So that means another 62,500 troops and a total of nearly 90,000.
The numbers can be scaled up or down accordingly, based on the number of safe zones and the population associated with each safe zone. But one thing is clear: Creating and enforcing a safe zone will not be cheap in terms of manpower or cost. As a candidate for president, Trump proclaimed, “They’re gonna put up all the money. We’re not gonna put up money. We’re gonna lead it, and we’ll do a great a job. But we’re gonna get the Gulf states to put up the money.”
Like the wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, Trump can claim that someone else will pay for it. However, the reality is that the U.S. taxpayer — and U.S. military — would have to come up with the down payment on safe zones.
Finally, there is this to consider. Establishing a safe zone means the possibility of having to fire on Syrian forces — perhaps even Russian forces — if they fire into the safe zone. Jim Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation — a think tank that supposedly helped Trump shape his views on foreign policy — says that means a safe zone “essentially boils down to a willingness to go to war [with Russia] to protect refugees.” How safe or smart is that?
The harsh reality is we must make difficult strategic decisions. The choice is not between protecting refugees and not protecting them. The choice is about what’s best for U.S. national security. It’s one thing to risk U.S. service members’ lives to protect against Syrians killing Americans — but safe zones are about protecting Syrians from killing each other. We’ve been doing that in Afghanistan and Iraq for more than a decade, and we are less safe today and trillions more in debt with an overextended military.