Many news outlets are reporting that Russia, Turkey and Iran have agreed to create so-called “safe zones” in Syria as part of the ceasefire talks taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan. However, the details of the agreement they signed Thursday reveal a different picture.

The memorandum lays the foundation to create de-escalation areas in Idlib and parts of neighboring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, in northern parts of Homs, in eastern Ghouta (Rif Dimashq governorate), and in Deraa and Al-Quneitra (see here for a map). Within these areas, hostilities will cease between the government of Syria and armed opposition groups that have joined the ceasefire. Along the borders of these areas, “security zones” composed of observation posts and checkpoints will be set up to prevent military confrontations between these parties, to ensure the movement of unarmed civilians and the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and to facilitate economic activities. The armed forces of Russia, Turkey, and Iran are meant to ensure the functioning and administration of these security zones (it is unclear if this entails placing their own troops on the ground). Maps of de-escalation areas and security zones are expected to be completed by June 4.

While the fighting in de-escalation areas shall cease between Syrian forces and the groups that are party to the ceasefire regime, the memorandum foresees that there may be armed opposition groups that are not party to the ceasefire. In addition, the memorandum states that Russia, Turkey and Iran will take all necessary measures to continue the fight against ISIL, Nusra Front and other entities associated with ISIL or al-Qaeda, both within and outside the de-escalation areas.

These details make it apparent that the de-escalation areas are not designed to be “safe zones.” As described in an earlier post, international humanitarian law (IHL) foresees the establishment, by agreement between the parties to the conflict, of zones to shelter persons from the effects of hostilities. Hospital and safety zones can be set up to protect the wounded and sick, as well as certain categories of civilians, from the effects of armed conflict. These are typically set up far from the area of fighting, and must not be defended by military means. More temporary “neutralized zones” are typically not removed from the area of combat and are meant to provide shelter for the wounded and sick and civilians who are in the vicinity of military operations but take no part in hostilities and perform no work of a military character while residing in these zones. “Demilitarized zones” are established to protect entire civilian populations residing in these zones against attack. No party to the conflict can occupy or use these areas for military purposes. The establishment of such zones under IHL is premised on all the parties to the conflict agreeing to set them up and respect their civilian character. (See here and here for zones established with the parties’ agreement.)

In the absence of agreement by all parties to establish a safe zone, an alternative can be for the UN Security Council to declare one, as it has done through resolutions on Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994. Nevertheless, such arrangements will typically raise important concerns: Unless all parties agree to the establishment of a demilitarized safe area, a strong military presence will be required to ensure its protection against attack. In turn, this military presence can draw attacks from enemy parties, thereby exposing the civilian population to military operations and undermining the very purpose of the area.

The fact that the proposed de-escalation areas under Thursday’s memorandum do not enjoy the agreement of all parties to the fighting in Syria, require armed forces to prevent military confrontations along their borders, and can expect to experience fighting against ISIL and other groups, indicates that they should not be considered safe zones and should not give civilians a misguided sense of enhanced safety.

This being said, the memorandum does contain some humanitarian elements that are important to highlight. It foresees the provision of rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access, conditions for the delivery of medical aid and for meeting civilians’ basic needs, measures to restore basic facilities such as the supply of water and electricity, and conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons.

While these explicit references are welcome, the measures should already be taking place. Many of these elements reflect established obligations under international law that already apply throughout Syria. For instance, a State has the primary responsibility to meet the essential needs of civilians on its territory or under its effective control. If the State party to the conflict has not fulfilled this responsibility, then organized armed groups with effective control over territory will bear this responsibility towards civilians under their control. A number of the memorandum’s humanitarian elements mirror IHL obligations that are binding on all parties to hostilities in Syria, wherever they may take place and wherever persons entitled to protection may find themselves. Under IHL, all parties have the obligation to allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief, and the wounded and sick must receive, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention required by their condition. Persons who are displaced (internally or across international borders) for reasons related to the armed conflict have a right to voluntary and safe return to their homes or places of habitual residence as soon as the reasons for their displacement cease to exist.

In addition to the important humanitarian elements reflected in the memorandum, it is essential to recall some other fundamental IHL obligations in the present context: a) Attacks must not be directed against civilians or civilian objects, and all feasible precautions must be taken to spare them from incidental harm; the same is true for humanitarian and medical personnel and their respective assets; b) the parties may not order the displacement of civilians for reasons related to the conflict unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand; c) it is prohibited to use weapons that are by nature indiscriminate; d) civilians and persons hors de combat (out of the battle) must be treated humanely; e) enforced disappearance is prohibited, and each party must take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of armed conflict, and provide family members with information they have on their fate. As part of the Astana process, Russia, Turkey and Iran, with the support of the United States and Jordan, have also been discussing humanitarian demining as well detainees and the missing.

The parties to the memorandum are determined to “decrease the level of military tensions and to provide for the security of civilians.” They – and all parties to the conflict in Syria – must pursue this goal in full compliance with their IHL obligations, both within and outside these new de-escalation areas.

* The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

Image: Getty/jcarillet