The Donald, our pre-President, has a curious habit of tossing out possible new policy initiatives in speeches about something totally different. Speaking two days ago on his Thank You Tour in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he said:
When I look at what is going on in Syria, it is so sad.
It is so sad, and we are going to help people.
I will get the Gulf States to give us lots of money and we will build and help build safe zones in Syria
Now, from day one in this election, months before I finally decided to hold my nose and vote for him, I’ve said that people were wildly underestimating the Donald … and look what happened.
A a result we’d be wise to consider what he lightly tosses out into a speech and respond to it. Among other things, the Donald is very, very sensitive to crowd reactions. Here’s an example. I heard him talk about how they came up with the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”. He said he used it in a speech once, and people seemed to like it. So he used it again … and another time … and that was how he made the decision. No polls. No discussion with insiders. No focus groups. He based it on how people responded when he personally talked about it.
So let’s look at some of the pluses of this plan. Now, the first thing is, I gotta give the Donald props for thinking outside the box, in two aspects—first, the audacity of proposing to create a safe zone in Syria, a daunting task, and second, having the Gulf Arabs pay for it.
However, I think both are eminently possible. And this would be a part of the beauty of having Rex Tillerson, AKA “T. Rex“, at the head of the State Department. He knows all those Gulf people on a first-name basis, he’s cut lots of deals with them.
And funding a “safe zone” in Syria would be a huge plus for the other countries in the region, they are terrified by the outflux of Syrian refugees. So I suspect they’d put up money if it were properly pitched as humanitarian aid to give the refugees a place to land while the dust settles. They can be seen as helping their brother Muslims, and how often does that happen in their fractious universe? Usually they suicide bomb each other … but I digress.
Plus it lets the Gulf states poke Iran in the eye because Iran is Syria’s ally, and as they say in the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is the friend of my cousin who is the enemy of my other enemy’s friend … or something like that. In any case, the Gulf Arabs don’t like Iran.
However, I’m not as dumb as a DOE scientist, I don’t just do a one-sided “social cost” or a “social benefit” analysis. You have to do both. So we’ve discussed some benefits, what are the costs?
Well, to start with you’d have to admit that it’s an uphill swim given that previous US involvement in the region has not been a stunning success … so you’d want to play it as hands-off as possible. Get a “Safe Zone Coalition” together of different countries. United Nations provides on-the-ground management of the refugee camp. US provides … what. OK, I got it. The US provides the fence that fences off the security zone from the rest of the planet. USA, fence builder to the world. Because one thing is clear. Whether the US needs a fence or not, and I think it does, the Syrian Safe Zone needs to be hermetically sealed.
There can be absolutely no free entry and exit from the Syrian Safe Zone. Otherwise, refugees will both use it to get into the next country (bad) or use it as a safe base for forays into Syria (worse). The Donald can practice fence-building, Robert Frost said “Good fences make good neighbors” … of course it likely won’t be much of a physical fence. It will likely be two parallel warning fences half a mile apart with signs in all UN-mandated languages, with the strip between guarded 24/7 by IR-equipped drones carrying a magazine of RPGs and flown by bored Air Force guys in Topeka. Can’t have Syrian Army guys sneaking in to bomb the camps or kill the leaders.
The next issue is that you’re talking about feeding and clothing and housing and providing health care and water and sanitation for what the Donald might call a “huuuuge” bunch of people, who knows how many? Three percent of the Syrian population? Hang on … … OK, three percent of the population is 675,000 people, that’s a big city, over half a million … not trivial by any means.
So in practical terms, we’ll only be able to help maybe what, half a percent of the population? That’s about a hundred thousand people, a very large number to feed and clothe and etcetera and we’re only helping half a percent of the population?
Hmmm … its an interesting look at risk/reward to know that our efforts will make almost no difference to the overall Syrian population. Absent building a new city of over half a million, far less than percent of the Syrian population will be able to take advantage. Hmmm …
Anyhow, to start with, it’s gonna take a whole lot of dirt to do that, dirt that is already owned by some luckless Syrians. You gotta go in and give them the news that they’re now in a new temporary country and oh, by the way, did we mention your hundred thousand new neighbors?
And providing housing and septic, that’s the easy part. Give a man a tent, he’s happy for a long time. Give him a hamburger, he’s hungry by nightfall. Feeding the people would be a logistical challenge for sure.
Next, as they say, “If you build it they will come”. If we build a paradise, or at least freedom from bombing, for a hundred thousand … and there are twenty-two million more outside the walls of your paradise, don’t you think there just might be a waiting line of people pounding on the door and demanding admittance?
However, that’s all just logistics, and as such is demonstrably solvable in theory. Lots of thorny practical issues in there, might have to be much larger than we think, but they are challenges that can be met. Not easily, not cheaply, but it can be done.
The real question is one I only learned to ask later in life, viz:
What is the exit strategy?
I mean, how long will this last? No longer than the money lasts, presumably. And what will happen to it then? Will the doors be opened and Assad the Syrian lion lay down with the lamb and do him no harm? Mmmm … not. Assad will want to punish those who fled. Count on it.
Or will the American taxpayer be left footing the bill for perpetual air support since we’re unwilling to hand the people over to Assad the Syrian lion?
Or will it persist, and find some donors, and put together some primitive economy, and exist in some semi-parasitic half-life until it thinks of itself as its own country, the Free Syrian Republic?
Or will the people of the other countries of the world take them in? Many countries are already over-run with mostly young male Syrian refugees who are already creating large social strains in their new homes. I don’t see any groundswell of Western countries willing to take in large numbers of Syrians. The first wave has pretty much poisoned that well.
Plus the Russians don’t want them, they have more Muslim problems than they can handle already. And the other Muslim countries in the region have taken in few Syrian refugee to date, they’re laughing their okoles off at the problems Syrian refugees are causing in Europe, they won’t take any more Syrian refugees. Turkey and the neighboring states have enough to do with border crossers and Saudi Arabia wants nothing to do with them. Fuggeddaboudit, not even for the Donald would they do that. That’s the only reason why the Gulf states would be willing to put up the money in the first place, to NOT have to deal with Syrian refugees.
So that’s the real downside of the Syrian Safe Zone plan, and it’s a big one. It all sounds good until the money runs out and you have to say “What now?” Until that question gets answered, I’ll withhold supporting what is otherwise a lovely idea. The plan definitely appeals to my heart … but then my heart, to its credit, never heard of exit strategies …
That’s my thoughts on a lovely sunny December morning. Earlier I walked around the land after the storm. The deer have been past the fence since the rain, their tracks are clear. And the dew is still on the grass, with the sun behind me I was wandering over a field of diamonds in green velvet. Amidst all of our joys and sorrows, the dew still falls, the earth abides …
For all of you I wish the wind gently breathing in the treetops, and the sun shining on your path,
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