Trump wants the U.S. military to establish ISIS refugee camps in Syria

By: Andrew deGrandpre and Leo Shane III,

President Trump envisions using the U.S. military, in conjunction with the State Department, to establish and protect refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries, according to a draft executive order outlining several steps the new administration intends to take with hopes of preventing future terrorist attacks on American soil.

First obtained and published Wednesday by The Huffington Post, the document alludes to Trump's controversial calls to prevent people fleeing the war-torn country from entering the United States, and it indicates he wants to see a plan by late May. The objective is to establish "safe zones" — both inside Syria and in neighboring countries — that will be used to "protect vulnerable Syrian populations" while they "await firm settlement" either elsewhere in Syria or in other countries. 

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer did not directly address the document but said Trump would discuss the issue at length in the near future. 

"The president has talked extensively about extreme vetting," he said. "And you'll see more action this week on keeping America safe. This has been something he talked about in the inaugural address. He talked about it in the campaign.

Syria's six year civil war has forced more than 11 million people to uproot, according to recent estimates. The resulting refugee crisis has overwhelmed countries throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Observers have suggested that establishing the type of safe zones Trump is proposing could require tens of thousands of American troops, possibly drawing the U.S. into another extended overseas military conflict.

There are about 500 American troops on the ground now in Syria, mostly special operations personnel advising local militias and Turkish military forces battling the Islamic State. U.S. officials acknowledged earlier this month that the relatively light U.S. footprint in Syria also includes forward air controllers, who help to coordinate coalition airstrikes.

Another 5,000 troops are deployed to neighboring Iraq, also in advising and assistance roles.

A September  poll of 2,200 active-duty troops found that about 55 percent said they "strongly oppose" or "somewhat oppose" such efforts.

Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was formerly a country director for Syria at the Department of Defense, told Business Insider "If the US decides to pursue a safe zone, it needs to do so in the broader framework that looks at what sort of levers, what sort of coercive measures can the US bring to bear on Russia, Assad, and Iran to ensure that the safe zone is not violated and to mitigate the risks of military confrontation."

It's unclear whether a safe zone would mean imposing no-fly restrictions above the territory, but protecting the airspace would most likely be necessary. And if that is the case, the US would need to be prepared to shoot down any aircraft that violates the no-fly zone — a move that could lead to war.

Trump himself said in October that his then-political rival's plan for resolving the Syrian conflict, which included establishing no-fly zones and safe zones, would "lead to World War III." He used the same logic many experts are now using to express skepticism about his own plan.

"What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria," Trump told The Guardian. "You're going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton."

He continued: "You're not fighting Syria anymore, you're fighting Syria, Russia, and Iran, all right? Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk."

Russia also issued a veiled warning to the Trump administration.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday that it was important for the US to "think about the potential consequences of establishing safe zones" in Syria.

But the problem with this strategy is that the Assad regime considers his opposition to be entirely made up of terrorists, meaning he'd be unlikely to support a safe zone that included rebels who oppose him.

"Given the marbled nature of the different groups that are present in northern Syria, it's very difficult to separate the interlaced communities that the US may deem as civilians versus what Assad and the Russians deem as a threat or extremists," Dalton said.

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