President Donald Trump seems intent on creating so-called “safe zones” in Syria. Last week he told ABC’s David Muir, “I’ll absolutely do safe zones in Syria.” A readout from President Trump’s Sunday call with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said the king agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen. According to Reuters, “The Saudi Press Agency, in its readout of the call, made no specific mention of safe zones.” But the White House statement said: “The President requested and the King agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts.” The draft presidential executive order barring refugees to the US called for the creation of a safe zone for Syrians and ordered the Pentagon and the State department to draw up plans. While the final document did not contain anything about safe zones, Trump’s call with King Salman shows it’s very much still on his mind. Meanwhile the Islamic State still controls parts of Syria, including the city of Raqqa, where it rules via violence. And the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with military support from Russia and Iran, has continued a scorched earth campaign against its own citizens, resulting in more than 500,000 dead, half the country internally displaced or living as refugees in across Lebanon, Jordan, Europe, and elsewhere. There is no end to the violence in sight. Now, the U.S. response in 2017 will be to close its doors to those seeking protection from harm.
The idea for safes zones in Syria is not new. The Turkish government long pressed the Obama administration for a no-fly zone on its border with Syria, which the US resisted to avoid being drawn in further militarily. Creating a safe zone is fraught with complexities and the key issue is whether such zones can actually protect civilians from harm.
Key questions that planners at the Pentagon and State need to answer are:
- If one area is designated as a “safe zone” what about the rest of Syria, will that be then deemed unsafe? Will parties to the conflict see this as a carte blanche to continue indiscriminate attacks against those who cannot access or are not allowed into the safe zone?
- Where will the safe zone be located? How will people be screened to enter this safe zone? Who will screen them and who will be allowed in? How many people will be allowed in? Who will move the population from where they are now to the safe zone? How will the population get access to basic necessities such as food, water and shelter? Who will provide the money and resources to properly care for those living in the safe zone and for how long?
- Would a safe zone be imposed without the consent of all parties to the conflict? If so, could the safe zone be viewed as a target, putting civilians in a potentially more dangerous situation by gathering them all in one area? How will this risk be assessed and mitigated?
- Who is responsible for security within the safe zone and will counter threats from the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, the Assad regime, or Russia?
- Which country’s forces will provide security from the air and on the ground and will they have a mandate to use force to protect civilians?
- Will there be unhindered access to humanitarian aid? What are the conditions for allowing aid in? The Assad regime, as well as other armed groups, have blocked the distribution of aid, including medicine, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Why would aid to safe zones not be similarly restricted?
- Will a safe zone compromise the right of Syrians fleeing violence to seek asylum or be refugees in neighboring countries? Will the governments of Lebanon, Turkey, Europe, and Jordan justify the denial of access to asylum or the forced return of refugees to Syria?
Safe zones can work in a humanitarian crisis if the key players are committed to protecting civilians. In 1991, NATO forces created a demilitarized zone to protect Kurds in northern Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s forces following the Gulf war. This operation involved thousands of ground personnel, air power, and coordination by a united coalition. In 1995, however, 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were massacred by Bosnian Serbs, who overran the Muslim town of Srebrenica, which was declared a “safe area” for civilians and meant to be protected by Dutch peacekeepers.
A Syrian safe zone—if not strategically developed, politically and militarily supported, and well planned—may actually serve as a pretext for containing a desperate people and further putting their lives in danger. Given current conflict dynamics in Syria there is no indication that these zones will be safe. A cessation in hostilities and an inclusive peace process and political transition is needed for Syria to end the violence.