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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman July 15, 2020

No safe zone in Syria for refugees

President Donald Trump has failed to deliver on his campaign promise to establish "safe zones" in Syria for refugees rather than bringing them to the United States.

"That was absolutely never done," said Mark Hetfield, CEO of HIAS, a group that helps refugees resettle. "It was in an early leaked draft of the first executive order, but that is the closest it has come to seeing the light of day."

More than 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, with most seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in the U.S., but the numbers dropped during the Trump administration as it slashed the total number of refugees allowed into the country.

John Glaser, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the CATO Institute, said he knew of no policy change related to safe zones.

"Safe zones would require a substantially larger military presence on the ground and constant protection from the air," Glaser said. "We'd probably need regional cooperation, too. None of that is happening, I don't think. I'd add that I consider such a shift unlikely this close to the 2020 elections." 

RELATED: Fact-checking Donald Trump's claims about Syria and US troop withdrawal

President Barack Obama didn't succeed on this front either, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution who specializes in foreign policy. Trump pulled the U.S. out of half of the zone in northeast Syria where the U.S. worked with the Kurds to provide at least some local protection for modest numbers of people, he said.

We asked the State Department if it had any evidence that the administration had created safe zones, and a spokesperson told us the department had no information.

We found no evidence that the Trump administration created safe zones in Syria. We rate this Promise Broken.


Our Sources

Washington Post op ed by Lionel Beehner, Trump once talked of a 'beautiful safe zone' in Syria. But safe zones aren't actually safe, Oct. 22, 2019

Email interview, Mark Hetfield, CEO and president of HIAS, July 9, 2020

Email interview, John Glaser, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the CATO Institute, July 9, 2020

Email interview, Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings Institute, July 9, 2020

Email interview, Steven Heydemann, Director, Middle East Studies Program and professor at Smith College, July 10, 2020


Mica Soellner
By Mica Soellner April 5, 2018

No progress on building safe zones for Syrian refugees amidst troop withdrawal announcements

President Donald Trump said during his campaign that he wants to create a "safe zone" for Syrian people wanting to escape ongoing war in their country, rather than having refugees enter the United States.

Trump's recent announcement that American troops should get out of Syria as soon as possible is at odds with this idea.

Trump commended the success of combating ISIS and announced plans for the United States to come out of Syria to "let the other people take care of it now" during an infrastructure speech in Ohio on March 29.

The next day, Trump ordered the State Department to suspend over $200 million in funds for recovery efforts in Syria while the administration re-evaluates its position in the conflict.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised additional funds in February during a meeting in Kuwait with the coalition fighting ISIS. Trump fired Tillerson as Secretary of State in March.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a press conference on April 4 that the goal of being in Syria has always been to defeat ISIS. Sanders said the next step for the United States would be to bring troops home and transition the battle to local law enforcement.

Sanders also said that Trump is not going to declare a timeline, and the Pentagon will determine when conditions have improved enough to permit a drawdown.

No comments have been made so far on the progress to implement safe zones into Syria following the declaration to remove troops.

Mark Hetfield, who is the president and CEO of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit organization that supports refugees, believes that while Trump has kept his promise to limit the entrance of Syrian refugees into the United States, his proposal to create safe zones has been stalled indefinitely.

"The U.S. under Trump is showing zero leadership in terms of refugee resettlement," Hetfield told PolitiFact. "To my knowledge, the U.S. has not stepped up its efforts to protect Syrians who have been forced to flee their homes inside of Syria."

John Glaser, the director of foreign policy studies at the CATO Institute, said that creating safe zones in Syria was a policy option that was much discussed during the Obama administration, but the government has since made the campaign against ISIS a higher priority.

"I don't think (Trump's) comments in support of a safe zone during the campaign were well thought out, and at present he clearly doesn't support them," Glaser told PolitiFact.

"Washington has long understood the risk of that kind of escalation in Syria, and Trump wants to avoid that by abandoning any hope of establishing safe zones by suggesting it's time for the 2,000 or so U.S. troops to withdraw," he said.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution who specializes in foreign policy, said that pulling troops out will hinder the progress of safe zones: "(Trump)'s Syria strategy to date has helped honor and fulfill such a promise at least partially and indirectly, but a complete U.S. pullout would largely invalidate and threaten it."

Trump's promise to pull troops out of Syria undermines his campaign pledge to create safe zones there. We'll continue monitoring this promise update, but for now it remains rated Stalled.

Our Sources

The New York Times, Trump drops push for immediate withdrawal of troops from Syria, April 4, 2018

C-SPAN, Trump infrastructure speech, March 29, 2018

POLITICO, Trump administration freezes $200 million in funds for Syria recovery, March 30, 2018

The Hill, Trump freezes $200M in Syria recovery funds: report, March 31, 2018

C-SPAN, April 4 Press Briefing

Vox, Executive Order 13769 draft

White House, Executive order protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States

E-mail interview with Mark Hetfield, CEO and president of HIAS

E-mail interview John Glaser, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the CATO Institute

E-mail interview with Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings Institute

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde September 27, 2017

No indication that United States has created safe zone in Syria

President Donald Trump pledged to create a safe zone to help Syrians impacted by the country's civil war. But so far, there's no indication that the United States has taken this step.

A State Department official told us that the United States supports efforts that may de-escalate violence in Syria.

Russia, Turkey and Iran have established "de-escalation zones" in Syria, but as we've noted before, those measures are separate from U.S. undertakings.

A ceasefire that went into effect in July, a result of an understanding among the United States, Jordan and Russia, is a step toward de-escalation in southwest Syria "that can end hostilities and return stability and unhindered humanitarian access," a State Department official told PolitiFact.

But the State Department did not respond to requests on whether the United States had also created a safe zone in Syria.

The Times of Israel reported on Sept. 11 that Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that Russia, Jordan and the United States were in talks to set up a safe zone for refugees "as soon as possible."

Jordan hosts more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to Sept. 10 data from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Robert McKenzie, director of the Muslim Diaspora Initiative at New America, told us in July that an assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration would likely oversee a safe-zone policy development.

But as of Sept. 27, Trump had not nominated someone for that position, though it's currently headed by an acting assistant secretary, Simon Henshaw.

The White House did not respond to our requests for information regarding a potential nominee or Trump's efforts for a Syrian safe zone.

Trump promised to create a safe zone for Syrians instead of admitting them in the United States as refugees. There are no reports of this taking place yet. We continue to rate this promise Stalled.

Our Sources

Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll July 14, 2017

No clear progress on Syria safe zones

More than 5 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011, and more than 6 million are displaced from their homes internally, according to the United Nations.

To protect them, President Donald Trump promised during his campaign that he would establish "safe zones" in Syria, rather than bringing them to the United States..

Since Trump took office, there has been talk about plans to establish conflict-free regions to house displaced Syrian civilians. But his administration has not made any measurable progress toward this goal during his first six months in office.

During Trump's first couple weeks in office, the White House said he asked the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to support safe zones in Syria. A few months later, the White House said he discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"What I want to do is build safe zones in Syria and other places so they can stay there and live safely until their cities and their country, that mess that I was left by Obama and everybody else — folks, we were left a mess like you wouldn't believe, but we're going to build safe zones," he said in a Feb. 18 speech in Florida.

He said in the same speech that he would make the gulf nations pay for the safe zones.

Russia, Turkey and Iran established four "de-escalation zones" in Syria in early May, but that's separate from U.S. efforts.

The United States and Russia — which support opposing sides in the Syrian conflict — agreed to a ceasefire in southwest Syria July 7, but it's unclear whether the ceasefire agreement establishes any additional safe zones specifically for refugees.

"No one's quite sure what the status is," said Robert McKenzie, director of the Muslim Diaspora Initiative at New America, a think tank.

Based on his conversations with government employees working on the Syrian refugee issue, McKenzie said it doesn't appear that the White House has worked on a serious proposal.

He added that Trump has yet to nominate an assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, who would likely oversee safe-zone policy development.

Establishing safe zones is difficult because it raises a host of prickly questions, McKenzie said. Like: How do you protect the safe zone from bombings? How do you police the region so it doesn't become a hotbed for extremist group recruitment? And how do you get the displaced people to the safe zone?

President Barack Obama's administration shied away from establishing safe zones in Syria because of these concerns, along with the desire to avoid getting entrenched in a foreign conflict like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, McKenzie said.

We should also note that in March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he wanted to establish an "interim zone of stability" for civilians displaced by the Islamic State. But State Department spokespeople told reporters at the time that this was separate from Trump's promise to establish safe zones for victims of the Syrian civil war.

The White House has said Trump is still interested in establishing safe zones, as recently as June 20. But because we don't really see the administration putting the wheels in motion yet, we rate this promise Stalled.

Our Sources

UN Refugee Agency, Syria Emergency, May 30, 2017

State Department, press briefing, March 23, 2017

White House, Briefing Room search, conducted July 13, 2017

White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, June 20, 2017

Reuters, "Tillerson pledges safe areas for refugees, more pressure on Islamic State," March 21, 2017

New York Times, "Russia Reaches Deal for Syria Safe Zones, but Some Rebels Scoff," May 4, 2017

New York Times, "U.S., Russia and Jordan Reach Deal for Cease-Fire in Part of Syria," July 7, 2017

Atlantic, "U.S. and Russia Agree to Cease-Fire in Syria," July 7, 2017

Al Jazeera, "Trump's 'real estate' approach to safe zones in Syria," Jan. 31, 2017

Al Jazeera, "What would safe zones mean for the Syrian conflict?" Feb. 8, 2017

CNN, "Trump wants 'safe zones' set up in Syria. But do they work?" Jan. 27, 2017

Phone interview, New America senior fellow Robert McKenzie, July 13, 2017

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