The goal of a “safe zone” is a laudable one: to protect civilians from attacks in a designated area. But despite its misleadingly simplistic name, establishing a “safe zone” in Syria would put civilians in even greater danger and risk prolonging Syria’s bloody nightmare.
Safe zone proponents and opponents alike can agree that the failure of the international community to end the war in Syria is one of the greatest moral outrages of our time. But in trying to stop the carnage, we owe it to Syrians to not put their lives in even greater jeopardy.
Here, then, are the three main reasons so many humanitarian organizations, human rights advocates, and other experts in civilian protection warn that Washington and its allies militarily imposing a safe zone in Syria would harm, not help, civilians:
1) A safe zone would concentrate vulnerable people in one place, making them a perfect target
When one combs through interviews from United Nations officials, humanitarian aid workers, human rights advocates, and Syrian refugees regarding their concerns about a safe zone in Syria, one word will continually resurface: Srebrenica.
During the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, the UN proclaimed the town of Srebrenica as one of six “safe areas” where civilians could flee for protection.
For years there were widespread concerns among top policymakers in the United States, France, Britain, and the United Nations that Srebrenica could not be sufficiently protected as a safe area. Some argued that there wouldn’t be enough troops to defend the area, while a UN Security Council report highlighted the potential for Srebrenica to be targeted by the Bosnian Serb army.
Dutch peacekeepers were sent to Srebrenica under a UN mandate to protect civilians, but stood aside while Bosnian Serb forces invaded. In fact, the evening of the invasion, the Dutch commander drank a toast with the Bosnian Serb general.
The next day, the Bosnian Serbs set about massacring 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, in the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II. Having thousands of civilians in one place made it easier for the Bosnian Serbs to carry out such a massive genocide.
A safe zone is by design intended to concentrate the number of civilians in one place. If the safety of civilians can truly be guaranteed, then lives can be saved. A crucial lesson from Srebrenica is that if civilians’ safety cannot be guaranteed, concentrating civilians in such an area can make them even more vulnerable to the attacks the safe zone was intended to shield them from.
Establishing and defending a safe area in Syria would face the same challenges. It isn’t hard to imagine ISIS or other groups attempting to seize the international spotlight by attacking a safe zone and murdering thousands of vulnerable civilians.
2) A safe zone would need consent from the warring parties to really be safe
Like the “safe areas” in the Bosnian war, a safe zone in today’s Syria would not have consent from all of the major warring parties. None of the major parties to the conflict — including the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, ISIS, and other groups — could be expected to recognize any safe area imposed by the United States. In fact, they would almost certainly be expected to violate the rules of the safe area.
As Ariane Rummery, the spokesperson of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), asserts, the lack of consent from the primary warring parties would make it virtually impossible to create a safe zone that is truly safe for civilians: “Without full International Humanitarian Law (IHL) safeguards in place, including consent of the government and warring parties and the zone being civilian in character, safety of civilians would be hard to guarantee.”
In a letter to European Union leaders earlier this year, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, criticizes the EU for using the term “safe zone” at all in the Syrian context. He points out that while the Geneva Conventions describe “safety areas” as places that all parties to any conflict respect as neutralized, “no one is remotely suggesting such truly safe places would be established along the Turkish border.”
Proponents of both a safe zone and a no-fly zone often cite the example of the no-fly zone imposed by the US and its allies in northern Iraq in 1991. Leaving aside all the other concerns the humanitarian community has about the Iraqi no-fly zone, it is crucial to note that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein gave its consent for the no-fly zone.
This is a stark distinction from the Syrian example, in which it is virtually impossible to imagine that the Assad regime would give its consent to such an arrangement, outside of a broader diplomatic settlement.
Also unlike the Iraq example of the 1990s, the Syrian war is made up of a multitude of overlapping global, regional, and local rivalries. To secure a safe zone would require not only the consent of the Assad regime but also the consent of Iran, ISIS, and dozens of other groups fighting in Syria.
Consent would also have to be obtained by the Russian government, which is backing the Assad regime. Russia would likely respond to a safe zone militarily imposed by the United States by escalating its own aerial assaults, in order to assert geopolitical dominance in Syria.
3) Defending the safe zone would widen the war and make a political settlement less likely
To impose a safe zone in the absence of a diplomatic agreement, the United States would have to massively escalate its military intervention in Syria. This means Washington waging an all-out war against the Assad regime and its allies — including Russia and Iran.
Enforcing a safe zone implies an open-ended commitment to the use of military force in a designated safe area of Syria to stop air and ground attacks from the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, ISIS, and other extremist groups. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year that it would take up to 30,000 US troops to maintain a safe zone in Syria.
If 30,000 US troops were deployed to northern Syria and attacks continued from Assad, Russia, Iran, or ISIS, it seems all the more likely that the US response at that point would simply be to send even more troops. Militarily imposing a safe zone, then, would ultimately be a colossal escalation, taking the US further down an already very slippery slope of military intervention.
Perhaps of the greatest threat to global security is the threat of the US shooting down a Russian airplane in Syria. Former White House adviser Aaron David Miller astutely asked, “Are we prepared to play chicken with the Russians over Syria’s skies, and would we risk downed pilots falling into ISIS hands? What would we gain?” Furthermore, what would civilians gain from escalating US tensions with Russia? What would they lose?
Perhaps the only areas of Syria made safer — not safe but safer — for civilians during the course of the civil war have been those areas that experienced a dramatic drop in civilian casualties during the “cessation of hostilities” that held from late February until its collapse in April. In the areas under the partial ceasefire agreement, civilian casualties were at a four-year low.
Protecting Syrian civilians will depend on negotiating a new ceasefire, and eventually an inclusive political settlement that ends the killing. A militarily imposed safe zone will take us further that from a comprehensive political solution, which is the only way to truly ensure the enduring safety of Syrian civilians.
Kate Gould is the legislative representative for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. Kate is also a political partner with the Truman National Security Project, and is on the board of Churches for Middle East Peace and the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship. Find her on Twitter @k8gould.