What would safe zones mean for the Syrian conflict? Safe zones represent a solution to the symptom and not the larger problem. Samer N Abboud is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University, Pennsylvania. His current focus is on Syrian capital flight. In the early stages of the Syrian conflict, the Turkish government had called regularly for a United Nations-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria as a way to limit the number of refugees coming into the country and to place military and political pressure on the Syrian regime. Over the course of the Syrian conflict, the Obama administration remained hostile to the strategy and actively undermined any efforts at its realisation. Until the new US administration revived the idea, the prospect of intensified American intervention and the creation of a comprehensive, multilateral military force in northern Syria seemed unthinkable, especially given the Russian military presence in the country.
Yet, today, a Syrian safe zone is closer to reality than at any other time in the conflict. Regional states, whose influence in Syria dwindled in the face of Russian intervention, have begun to declare their support for the new policy. Whether or not this is merely posturing is too early to tell, but it poses the question: What would safe zones mean for the Syrian conflict? The safe zone strategy has been a key feature of the post-Cold War military landscape. In the aftermath of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, US and British aircraft maintained a no-fly zone in the southern and northern parts of Iraq. Similarly, the United Nations declared six areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including Srebrenica and Sarajevo, safe zones and placed them under the protection of a United Nations peacekeeping force in 1993. The logic of the safe zone in both conflicts was to create secure, contained areas in which displaced people could flee and receive protection from violence. Whether through air support or ground troops, these safe zones were intended to protect civilians from violence, contain their displacement within their countries, and provide humanitarian relief.
Proponents of safe zones in Syria argue that they represent the best way to stem the refugee crisis and to keep most Syrians close to their homes. Doing so would also provide the space and means to provide much-needed services to Syrians affected by the war, whether in healthcare or education.Backed militarily by a multilateral force, the safe zone would prevent regime and rebel forces from attacking civilians and would provide some semblance of protection and stability amid the chaos of the conflict. It could also foster multilateral cooperation and provide a military counterweight to the Russian presence in Syria. All of these arguments, proponents claim, make safe zones a viable and necessary strategy for Syria. But is this the kind of solution that Syria needs today? Certainly, the horrors of the last five years compel a search for ways to halt the humanitarian crisis.
But the safe zone is a strategy fraught with problems. Indeed, the very idea of militarised humanitarianism that is at the core of the safe zone idea is problematic, in so far as it enhances and deepens the militarisation of conflicts. As the tragic case of the Srebrenica massacre demonstrated, safe zones can become targets, sites of extreme violence of the kind that civilians were fleeing, even in the face of peacekeeping forces. That Syrian safe zones will, somehow miraculously, be outside of the reach of regime forces contradicts common sense. Unlike the Iraqi regime after the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the Syrian regime and its allies, especially Russia, can disrupt any safe zone militarily. The safe zones idea is also flawed as it represents a solution to the symptom and not the larger problem. In containing civilians in northern Syria, the safe zones would certainly reduce the number of refugees making their way to Europe. For this reason, many European leaders support the strategy as a way of confronting the refugee crisis at its root.
However, at this point, the Syrian conflict has assumed a dynamic and layered character against which a safe zone cannot provide protection. Civilians are not simply fleeing regime forces, but opposition armed groups, as well.
The violence in Syria is highly fragmented and militias of different stripes exert tremendous influence on-the-ground. Russia’s military presence means that they must sign off on safe zones; there is no real political or military reason to believe that Russia, given its current strategy in Syria to date, would simply allow Turkish, American, and Arab forces to enter into Syria and establish contiguous territory outside of Russian or regime control. What is needed today in Syria, more than ever, is a de-escalation of violence and a push towards real politics and a serious process to end the conflict.
Such a process would involve much more substantive and comprehensive talks than have been seen at Astana, so far. It may seem idealistic, but no more so than the prospect of safe zones advancing peace in Syria.
Sources: QGN, Gulf Agencies, AlJazeera, Bloomberg, Reuters, QT, QN, BBC News.