President Donald Trump’s executive order from Friday bars for 90 days the entry of nearly all foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. It suspends for 120 days the admission into the United States of all refugees, regardless of their country of origin, and bars Syrian refugees indefinitely.
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Most of the fierce criticism of the order from world leaders and human rights organizations focuses on humanitarian aspects, arguing that the provisions of the order betray the values on which the United States was founded and it was built as the first country that blocks the entry of Syrian refugees.
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The official name of the order, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” describes its ostensible purpose. But can Trump’s self-quarantine wall against Muslims prevent terror against the United States?
The majority of terror attacks by jihadi organizations throughout the world were aimed against American targets abroad rather than being carried out within the United States. These military and civilian targets still exist and they will continue to attract terror attacks. Would-be attackers from abroad who seek to carry out their plans in the United States but are stymied by the new order will instead wreak their havoc in Paris, Amman or Cairo.
U.S. military ships in the Red Sea are within missile range of Al-Qaida bases in Yemen, and in this context it is worth remembering the attack on the USS Cole near the coast of Yemen in 2000 or the 2012 murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. American consulates in Pakistan, Morocco and Tunisia, countries with branches of the Islamic State organization, are vulnerable. American projects and petroleum facilities throughout the Middle East, as well as residential neighborhoods that are popular with foreigners in general and Americans in particular are “appropriate” targets for all the terrorist groups.
The seven countries named in the order — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — were labeled in a 2016 law concerning immigration visas as “countries of concern,” but the new executive order seems like an illustration of the “streetlight effect,” that is looking for a lost item in the most convenient location, not the most likely one. Muslim terrorists have also set out from Britain, Chechnya, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and many other states that are not on Trump’s list of seven countries. Thousands of Islamic State volunteers came from “respectable” countries, some of them Western, such as Britain, France, Germany and the United States. Trump’s anti-Muslim isolationist strategy is therefore liable only to enhance anti-American feeling and to push population groups that had pinned their hopes on emigration to the United States toward the terror organizations.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, who was expected to speak by phone with Trump on Sunday, will certainly want to know what is to happen with the thousands of Saudis studying at U.S. colleges or who have already registered to study in the 2017-18 academic year. The U.S. president will tell the king that the executive order will not affect his subjects, despite the fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 attackers were Saudi citizens.
Salman is unlikely to find this reassuring. Anti-American sentiment is growing in his neighborhood, largely due to what is perceived as the U.S. failure in Syria and its ceding of control of the country to Russia.
Trump is therefore suggesting a “fix” to the American strategy in Syria. If Syrian refugees cannot enter the United States, perhaps they can benefit from so-called safe zones within Syria. This is another fundamental pivot from the policy of the Obama administration. Paradoxically, former President Barack Obama’s opposition to the establishment of safe zones was based on a separatist approach more suitable to Trump, the fear of America’s slide deep into the war in Syria because of the need to maintain the safe zones and the refugees who will populate them.
The idea of setting up safe zones is supported by most of the European countries, Turkey and Arab states. Apart from Syria, Russia and Iran, who fear that establishing these areas would act as an entrance door for Western, mainly American forces that would gnaw away at the Russian-Iranian monopoly of the country. Now, after Trump has instructed the Pentagon to prepare an action program for establishing these zones, Turkey, which was an eager supporter, has begun to cool somewhat, because it is not clear to it who will guard the safe zones, whether Washington will continue to operate the Syrian Kurds, considered terrorists by Turkey, or will cooperate with Turkey and Russia.
Russia, the big winner in the American presidential election, has already signaled Trump against unilateral action in Syria. Establishing “American” safe zones on Syrian territory means intensive military involvement, with ground forces, direct responsibility for the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians, if they chose to stay in these zones, potentially violent confrontations with the Syrian army or with militias that object to the idea and acting against the Turkish anxiety about the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in the safe zones. In humanitarian terms these zones could provide a reasonable solution for hundreds of thousands of refugees and uprooted people living in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
But the issue has stopped being humanitarian, certainly from the perspective of Trump, who sees the refugees as a terrorist threat to his country. Trump wants to present a solution that will drop Syria from the world’s agenda. In other words, if there won’t be a refugee problem there also won’t be a need for a military or diplomatic strategy regarding Syria. And this is the type of solution that Trump prefers, stroke-of-an-ax solutions, here’s a wall, there are the safe zones, closing the gates, just sign and continue on your way.