This is Part Two of Peace Action’s multi-part series on U.S. Syria policy.
Over the course of the 2016 election cycle, candidates from both parties have proposed establishing safe zones in Syria. In the general election, it was one of the few things both campaigns agreed on. Donald Trump called for, of course, a “big beautiful safe zone.” Hillary Clinton also called for “safe zones” in Syria, but neither candidate has offered much detail about what these zones would look like. Hillary’s Vice Presidential candidate Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been one of the main proponents of what he calls “humanitarian safe zones,” writing a letter to President Obama in April of 2015 that urged Obama to move forward with that policy, also without offering much detail on how the administration would go about establishing and protecting these zones.
Sticking to his guns, Kaine just recently criticized the Obama administration for being “unwilling” to put in place a “humanitarian safe zone.” Unfortunately, statements like this could serve to box in a Clinton administration and compel it to back the statements up with military action. On the other hand, some analysts have argued that Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness on the campaign trail could be exaggerated, and that her actual policy towards Syria, while likely less restrained than Obama’s, would be more measured than some of her talking points suggest.
Regardless of whether these policy proposals are ultimately enacted, there is something deeply troubling in the loose talk about military escalation that’s been casually thrown around by both parties in the 2016 election cycle. Micah Zenko of the Center for Preventive Action recently elaborated on this:
People running to serve as commander in chief, or even commander in chief in-waiting, should not be allowed by debate moderators or interviewers to toss out distinct military missions offhandedly without being pressed for specifics on how they would be implemented. A humanitarian zone is not a safe zone, which is not a no-fly zone. Each requires different levels of military commitment, different basing and overflight rights, different degrees of logistics and analytical support, and ultimately would affect the behavior of the combatants in the Syrian civil war differently.
Perhaps proponents of safe zones aren’t offering detailed proposals on them because any truthful, in-depth analysis of what it would take to establish and protect a safe zone in Syria could expose the myriad risks.
When Safe Zones Aren’t About Protecting Civilians
Like the “no-fly zone” concept with which it is often paired, “safe zones” sound simple enough. Who wouldn’t support the idea of having a safe place for civilians in a war torn country? But in reality, those most involved in the day-to-day work of advocating for civilians — human rights groups — generally oppose safe zones because they can endanger the very people they are supposed to protect. As Ariane Rummery, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, put it, “History has taught us that ‘safe areas’ have rarely been safe.”
When a so-called “safe zone” is proposed as an alternative to allowing fleeing civilians to leave the chaos of war behind them, as may have been the case with Turkey’s proposal for a safe zone along the Syrian/Turkish border, “safe” becomes a relative term. Safe zones can impede refugees ability to seek asylum, and give host states an excuse to close borders or send refugees back to a safe zone. A Harvard University report points out that “this occurred during the Balkans war when UNHCR and third party states rejected demands for asylum from Bosnians, on the grounds that asylum-seekers could seek refuge in the protected areas in Srebrenica and elsewhere.”
Territorial motivations for establishing safe zones are also cause for concern. According to Ege Seçkin, an analyst with the IHS think tank, one of the main proposed locations for a safe zone in Syria is “a narrow strip of territory over which a lot of parties have an interest and that’s a recipe for disaster.” In fact, Turkey is one of those parties given its expressed interest in preventing the expansion of a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria along Turkey’s southern border, which a safe zone in the proposed area could impede.
Safe Zones Can Become Targets
Even if employed for the sole purpose of protecting civilians, safe zones can still be dangerous. In the words of FCNL’s Kate Gould writing in Vox, “A safe zone would concentrate vulnerable people in one place, making them a perfect target.” In Srebrenica for example, in the summer of 1995, the so-called “safe area” created around Srebrenica became anything but safe when Bosnian Serb forces overran the area and massacred more than 8,000 Bosnian civilians. The area was in theory being protected by United Nations peacekeepers, but by the time roughly 5,000 Bosnian Serb troops had surrounded the area, due to a massive failure of the U.N. to maintain adequate troop numbers and sufficiently supply its forces, there were only about 300 ill-equipped U.N. troops stationed there, a wholly insufficient force to prevent the massacre.
Civilians were also targeted in safe zones established in Rwanda and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, despite the unilaterally declared “safe” zone, bombing continued and two-thirds of the conflict’s killings actually took place inside safe zones. In Rwanda, the French set up a safe zone that became extremely controversial for providing refuge for the genocidal Hutu forces and for failing to protect civilians. The most notorious incident there was the massacre of an estimated 4,000 internally displaced persons who were massed at camps at Kibeho set up as part of the safe zone.
Similarly, dynamics in Syria could turn a safe zone into a target. If areas of Syria were set up to protect civilians from Syrian government and Russian attacks, anti-government militias could try to use these areas as shelter or as bases to launch forays into the rest of Syria. That would then encourage Syrian and Russian forces to breach the safe areas with a full-on attack that could lead to all out war with the U.S.
A Syrian safe zone could also be an appealing target for extremist groups. Dominic Tierney, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, recently expanded on this “painting a target on the backs of civilians” theme:
A safe zone could actually become a target for jihadist groups. Jabhat al-Nusra [i.e. Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate] or ISIS may see attacks on the protected areas as a powerful symbolic move against the West. After all, when Washington sent a small force of moderate rebels into Syria this past summer, they were immediately attacked and almost wiped out by al-Nusra—perhaps to send a message.
All of these dynamics in Syria make the task of protecting a safe zone that much more difficult.
Protecting Safe Zones — With Soldiers
If attempted, the dangerous task of actually protecting a militarized safe zone on the ground is daunting. In November of 2015, a State Department official explained to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that it would be “extremely difficult to patrol and to protect these safe zones on the ground. And that would require a very significant investment of ground forces of some sort.”
Politicians like Kaine and Pence have said that “our partners” would patrol and protect the safe zones, but our partners on the ground in Syria, mainly Kurdish and Sunni militias, are all parties to the conflict themselves with limited resources to commit to the task, and who stand accused of human rights abuses, all of which make them unsuitable for the mission of protecting civilians in a safe zone. Many U.S. analysts believe that this means the U.S. would have to deploy a significant number of ground troops — Secretary John Kerry at one point estimated up to 30,000 U.S. troops — to enforce the borders of the zone. This raises the prospect of another prolonged deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East that could cost American lives and potentially spiral into a full-scale ground war. It’s hard to see how that approach would “hasten the end of the conflict.”
Neutral Zones Must Be Negotiated by All Parties
Beyond the glib political talk of militarily imposed safe zones, there is potential to use more legitimate demilitarized versions of the idea. For example, humanitarian corridors can be used — and in fact have been used in Syria — to bring aid to hard hit areas. While these corridors offer only temporary respite, they can save lives.
A more permanent area for civilian protection could also work if it is negotiated and agreed to by all warring parties. Under international law, such an area would “explicitly rely on the consent of all parties to the conflict and their agreement on the logistical issues involved in the creation and maintenance of a neutral, demilitarized safe zone,” and would have to be protected by a neutral and sufficient peacekeeping force, rather than forces otherwise engaged in the conflict.
Bill Frelick, Director of the Refugee Rights program of Human Rights Watch, recently described current talk of safe zones in Syria as “using vague humanitarian language to gloss a military initiative.” Expanding on the need for neutral zones to be negotiated by all parties to the conflict, Frelick wrote:
The Geneva Conventions, one of the principal sources of the laws of war, use specific terms such as “neutralized zone” and “safety zone” to describe places such as hospitals that are deemed to be neutral, demilitarized, and therefore areas of safety that all parties to any conflict must respect. When places declared safe zones have not met these standards, as at Srebrenica during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s–which turned into the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II, the rhetoric of safety when divorced of real protection has created death traps that have served to contain the flow of displaced people rather than protect civilians from harm.
Given that proposals for safe zones in Syria during the presidential election have been talked about as something the U.S. imposes along with allies rather than as neutral zones negotiated by all parties, it’s clear that negotiated neutral zones are not what proponents of safe zones in Syria have in mind.
In addition to the possibility of establishing mutually agreed upon neutral zones in Syria, there are already de-facto neutral zones in countries neighboring Syria. As David J Bier wrote in National Interest: “Refugees can already escape to Syria’s neighbors—Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which together host more than four million refugees. It’s hard to see the strategic reason to extend the safe zone in Turkey a few miles south into Syria just so that the camps could be within the borders of Syria.” As we address later in this series, there is a an urgent need for not only emergency aid for refugee camps but also for development aid to create housing, jobs, and education in these areas beyond the conflict.
Part Three of this series will look at another proposed military approach to Syria: retaliatory strikes against Syrian government forces in response to attacks on civilians.
Click here to read Part One of this series: The Siren Song of the No-Fly Zone
Click here to read Part Three of this series: The Perils of Another American Quagmire