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Buffer zones: the new international plan for a mini-invasion of Syria, explained

Turkish troops on the border with Syria
Turkish troops on the border with Syria

"The buffer zone is an idea that has been out there," Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday about the proposed plan — buffer zones — that the world is suddenly discussing for Syria. "It is worth examining, it's worth looking at very, very closely."

The idea of a buffer zone is that some outside country or countries would occupy a little slice of Syria and turn it into a haven for displaced Syrians. The idea is being proposed in response to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)'s invasion of the Syrian town of Kobane, which is creating a refugee crisis along Turkey's border.

It's a controversial idea. It could help ease the horrific humanitarian disaster of the Syrian war, which has killed perhaps 200,000 people, displaced several million, and is getting worse all the time. But it could also pretty easily suck Turkey, NATO, even the United States into an open-ended ground war in Syria — potentially making things much worse.

What is a buffer zone? How would it work?

Turkish military border

Turkish military forces gather after a howitzer shell from across the Syrian border lands in Turkish territory. (Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This is an idea that got heavy discussion in 2012, when it was raised by a number of foreign policy thinkers, including former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter, as a way to ease the killing in Syria. The idea was to protect Syrian civilians from Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who was (and still is) slaughtering people en masse, by carving out small pieces of territory within Syria that would be safe from Assad. The idea now is fundamentally the same, except that the safe zones would be protect civilians from Assad and from ISIS.

The safe areas would be controlled by some combination of foreign military peacekeepers and moderate Syrian rebels, who would let in humanitarian relief workers and would protect civilians in those areas. Slaughter described the idea, also known as "no-kill zones" or "humanitarian corridors," in a 2012 New York Times column:

The Free Syrian Army, a growing force of defectors from the government's army, would set up these no-kill zones near the Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian borders. Each zone should be established as close to the border as possible to allow the creation of short humanitarian corridors for the Red Cross and other groups to bring food, water and medicine in and take wounded patients out. The zones would be managed by already active civilian committees.

The big challenge is that you need some foreign military, powerful enough to seize and protect territory within Syria, to set up the safe zone and then protect it. In other words, you need a military that is more powerful than Syria's military or ISIS to invade that small part of Syria you want to hold. That's enormously risky, for reasons discussed below. But the demand for a safe zone is also rising as the catastrophe in Kobane worsens.

Why is the world suddenly talking about setting up a buffer zone in Syria?

syria october 5th

The situation in Syria, as of October 5th. Kobane is that tiny yellow spot of Kurdish-controlled territory in north-central Syria amid the sea of ISIS-controlled grey. (Thomas van Linge)

The reason is Kobane, the mostly Kurdish town in Syria just along the border with Turkey. ISIS is getting very close to completely overwhelming the Kurdish fighters defending the town, despite help from US airstrikes. This is already sending thousands of refugees into Turkey and could leave ISIS controlling a major border crossing, allowing it to expand its supply lines.

The US wants Turkey to send in troops to defend Kobane agains ISIS. Turkey is so far refusing to, probably in part because it doesn't like the idea of helping Kurdish militants (Turkey is fighting a mostly-separate group of other Kurdish militant within Turkey) but also because Turkey and the US fundamentally disagree about who the enemy is in Syria. Turkey sees Assad as the ultimate enemy, not ISIS, and they worry about invading ISIS-held territory in a way that would help Assad. The US is much more focused on attacking ISIS, even if that means helping out Assad.

Turkey's answer is to set up an internationally guarded buffer zone in Syria along the Turkish border. In other words, Turkey's offer is that it will invade Kobane to protect the town from ISIS if some Western militaries also put boots on the ground. Turkey doesn't just want Western help — they want to push the US and European powers closer to intervening fully in the war such as to topple Assad, as they've long insisted is necessary.

The possibility of a buffer zone happening is probably remote but real. French President Francois Hollande says he supports the plan and the British foreign secretary, like Kerry, said the plan merited discussion.

Buffer zones risk pulling the US and others into the Syrian war

Syrian family walks through the rubble of Idlib, in northwestern Syria (Umit Erdogan/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Syrian family walks through the rubble of Idlib, in northwestern Syria (Umit Erdogan/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Here is what makes buffer zones, or safe zones, or humanitarian corridors so dangerous: once you have American/British/French/Turkish troops occupying a little sliver of Syria that's surrounded by ISIS or by Assad forces, it's all but inevitable that those troops will come under attack. The war in Syria is deeply chaotic and the factions disorganized; it would only be a matter of time.

Open fighting between the foreign occupation forces and ISIS or Assad forces could spiral out of control all-too-easily, possibly leading to all-out war. The odds are just very low that we could put American (or British or French or Turkish) troops in the middle of the Syrian civil war and somehow keep the mission contained to protecting a tiny buffer zone.

This may well be why the Pentagon is saying that the buffer zone option is not "on the table." The exposure to risk and to mission creep is likely just too high.

Could a buffer zone actually work?

Syrian refugees stand with their remaining possessions on the border with Turkey. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

That depends on how it's executed and what the goals are.

If the goal is to protect civilians, then a buffer zone would probably risk a great deal more harm than good. Lightly-guarded buffer zones typically fail (a 1995 buffer zone in Bosnia failed to stop the slaughter of 8,000 people), and heavily-guarded buffer zones turn into wars because they require full military invasions. This is why, when the idea was proposed in 2012, humanitarian experts broadly opposed it.

The other key issue is whether Assad explicitly approves the buffer zone. Without Assad's sign-off on the buffer zone, his forces would likely see the buffer zone as a hostile invasion (this would not be totally wrong) and would attack it, virtually guaranteeing all-out war between Syria and the Western powers.

If the buffer zone is set up with cooperation from Assad and with the goal of fighting ISIS, then it could help. But it would risk of mission-creeping into the sort of full Western invasion and occupation that President Obama so wants to avoid, and it would require partnering with murderous war criminal Bashar al-Assad. That's probably the best-case outcome. Maybe the threat from ISIS will become dire enough that this option is worth the many downsides, but it's not a very attractive one.

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