Secretary of State John Kerry said it would take 15,000 to 30,000 ground troops to maintain a so called “safe zone” inside northern Syria, citing previously unheard estimates provided by the Pentagon. Yet, that is something easier said than done.
Although a ceasefire is planned for this coming Saturday, there are growing calls within Washington for a so-called “Plan-B”: options for military action if the truce fails. Many Republicans, including Donald Trump, are calling for a “safe zone” in northern Syria to protect the increasing number of displaced people.
The Pentagon estimates that, to have a true safe zone in the north of the country one may have upwards of fifteen to thirty thousand troops. Nevertheless, Kerry said that the U.S. is considering other options if a ceasefire can’t be reached inside Syria.
During testimony in front Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Kerry said it will be two or three months before the U.S. will know if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia are serious about a political transition process. If they’re not, he said, “‘Plan B’ options are being considered.”
Creating a safe zone isn’t as simple as it sounds. In addition to controlling the airspace, a large troop presence would be required to shield the population from ISIS attacks on the ground. Aside from the inherent physical and political risks of putting a large number of troops on the ground inside Syria, the U.S. worries about potential conflicts with Russia, which is also conducting an aerial bombing campaign over Syria. Creating a no-fly zone would most likely mean the U.S. would have to enforce that rule against Russian jets, a potentially dangerous scenario.
And yet, no one is talking about the Ballistic Missile threat that Syrian regime poses to a potential “safe-zone”. The regime’s older Scud-Bs have a range of up to 300 km and can carry the largest payload, almost 1,000 kg. The Scud-C doubles that range, but with a lesser payload of around 500 kg. The locally produced Fateh A-110/M600s have an estimated range of 200 km and a 500 kg payload. The SS-21 “Scarab” can reach between 70 and 120 km depending on the type used (Syria has both the A and B models), with a 500 kg high-explosive payload. All of these SSMs can be configured for cluster or chemical munitions. The regime has also employed FROG-7 artillery rockets that can deliver a 500 kg payload up to 70 km.
Implications on Turkey
In late November, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was pressing Turkey to send additional troops to seal its border with Syria. Pentagon officials estimated that it could take as many as 30,000 troops to seal the border on the Turkish side to enable a broader humanitarian mission. A U.S. official confirmed to news outlets that the estimates were developed as part of an assessment several months ago.
Furthermore, to counter the potential Tactical Ballistic Missile (TBM) threat to a safe zone in Northern Syria, Turkey would have the best coverage over the safe zone and might be in a position to host Ballistic Missile Defense systems on its territory, something which has the potential to add more fuel to Turkey’s “unpopularity” in the Russian eyes.