A leading Obama administration official warned that a popular proposal for humanitarian intervention in Syria could lead to refugees being forced back into the war-torn country.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the creation of “safe zones” inside of Syria could result in people being “expelled, so to speak, into this zone.” He noted the possibility of forced repatriation among a number of reasons why the Pentagon isn’t cavalier about the idea.
“I think it would be undesirable if it became a place into which people were pushed, say from Turkey or Europe,” Carter said Wednesday, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Lebanon and Jordan are also currently playing host to a large number of Syrian refugees.
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A number of lawmakers have, in the past few months, called on the administration to establish safe zones – also known as humanitarian corridors – inside of Syria, to augment ongoing war efforts against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL).
The Defense Department has repeatedly noted, in response, that the move would involve a sizable ground contingency that is, at the moment, a political non-starter in Washington.
On Wednesday, Carter said, again, that humanitarian corridors “would need to be protected because you can foresee that at least ISIL and other radical groups – and, quite possibly, elements of the Assad regime – would undertake [efforts]to prove it wasn’t safe.”
Carter made similar remarks earlier this year, not long after Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked the administration to forge inside of Syria at least one safe zone ‘with necessary enforceable mechanisms.'”
“We would need to fight to create such a space and then fight to keep such a space, and that’s why it’s a difficult thing to contemplate,” he told Durbing in May.
On Wednesday, Carter spoke about what safe zones could do to displaced Syrians outside of the country in response to a question from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
The Alabama Republican also asked, in a follow-up question, if the US has fought back against any kind of multinational push for the creation of humanitarian corridors. Sessions claimed that a “major European ambassador” told him the administration has resisted calls for the initiative from Transatlantic partners.
“I haven’t observed that,” Carter responded. “No European defense leader has indicated a willingness to do that and contribute to a force to do that,” he also noted.
Sessions has been at the forefront of GOP attacks on the Obama administration’s proposal to accept 10,000 additional Syrian refugees next year; a wave of xenophobia in the start of the autumn that foreshadowed the Republican Party’s current overt flirtation with ultra-nationalist politics.
In October, Sessions claimed that three-quarters of all migrants crossing the Mediterranean “are not refugees from Syria, but economic migrants.” When asked through email by The Sentinel what studies he was was citing, one of the senator’s staffers responded with one link to a Daily Mail article that had been quickly debunked by The Guardian, and another to a Wall Street Journal article that cited an unsourced allegation made by Matteo Salvini; the leader of a xenophobic, far-right Italian political party called the Northern League.
This week, GOP presidential candidates and Congressional Republicans have strained to distance themselves from a Monday policy proposal by Donald Trump to immediately shut US ports of entry to all Muslims, including American citizens abroad.
“What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for, and more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Ohio) said Tuesday.
Two of Trump’s presidential campaign rivals, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, respectively called the idea “offensive” and “outlandish,” and “unhinged.”