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The illusion of safe zones in Syria

Safe zones, buffer zones, no-fly zones, no-bomb zones, green zone. Everyone seems to want zones in Syria. Given the apocalyptic humanitarian crisis, who cannot but want a successful, credible safe-zone plan if it means saving thousands of innocent human lives? US President Donald Trump favors them, but is that a sign that it is a brilliant idea?
Russia has asked for details of the US plans, of which — in public at least — there are none. Lebanese President Michael Aoun has expressed his support. Intriguingly, so has Hezbollah. The Syrian regime scoffs at the idea. Fred Hof, the former US State Department adviser on Syria, suggested that once Daesh is booted out of Raqqa, it would become the “mother of all safe zones,” an idea that betrays a paltry knowledge of Syria at best.
The UN is highly resistant to the notion. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was clear: “Frankly, I don’t see in Syria the conditions” to create successful safe zones. “Let us not waste time planning safe zones that will not be set up because they will not be safe enough for people to go back. Let us concentrate on making peace so that everything becomes safe. That should be the investment.”
UN officials are all too conscious of previous cases, especially Srebrenica, where over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered under the eyes of 370 Dutch peacekeepers. This scar on the UN’s record, over two decades on, will not be erased easily.
But what is meant by a safe zone? This depends on who is speaking, which has clouded the entire debate. Of all the leaders who have expressed an interest, it is dubious that they have a common idea.
Turkey started touting safe zones way back in 2011. For most of the last five years, the no-fly zone was the holy grail of much of the Syrian opposition, naturally to halt the devastating bombardments the Syrian regime’s air force rained down on civilians and fighters alike. Russia was equally determined to prevent this happening, which it has, as well as the concept of a no-bomb zone, enforced by maritime assets in the Mediterranean.
UN officials are all too conscious of Srebrenica, where over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered under the eyes of 370 Dutch peacekeepers. This scar on the UN’s record, over two decades on, will not be erased easily.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Chris Doyle
All this was always fantasy, and often led Syrians to buy into what was a misleading pipe dream. No coalition of external powers were at any stage serious in imposing one, the US in particular, completely allergic to deploying the 15,000-30,000 ground troops estimated by the Pentagon to be necessary to enforce any safe zone.
Worse, certain powers such as Turkey kept hinting no-fly zones would be imposed, backed only by wishful thinking. This encouraged more hard-line positions by Syrian armed groups that ultimately did them a disservice.
Some want to create safe zones as a haven for opposition fighters as well as those fleeing the fighting. This remains deeply problematic. Either a zone is a haven for fighters or it is a humanitarian zone. It rarely can be both. Even then, who decides who can access such zones? Who could carry weapons? If fighters are allowed to carry weapons, opposing forces will consider the area a military target. It would not be a demilitarized space.
The option of creating a safe zone through mutual consent of all the belligerent parties has yet to materialize. Turkey is in the process of creating its own buffer zone in northern Syria, but on what terms it is not yet clear. It has a political and security imperative, not a humanitarian one. Its approach to refugees has been to close its borders, hardly an offer of protection. Both Turkey and Jordan fear Daesh using refugees to infiltrate.
Daesh and Al-Qaeda would not be party to this consent, and would infiltrate such zones. Daesh is widely held responsible for a series of bombings in Al-Rukban camp close to the Jordanian border. Criminals and smugglers would prosper. And who would trust the Syrian regime’s word to respect the zones given its record? A divided UN Security Council will not give legal cover to creating a safe zone, as happened in northern Iraq and Bosnia.
Another significant danger is that safe zones become dumping zones. Aoun is determined to send Syrian refugees back to Syria, so is an ardent supporter of the idea. The suspicion is that Trump supports just want to end the refugee flow from one of his seven black-marked states, not for any humanitarian merit. But rightly, under refugee law no refugees should be forcibly repatriated.
Will these areas be dead zones — devoid of real life and economy, and dependent on declining international largesse — or thriving economic hubs of life and progress? History does not favor the latter. If displaced people and refugees are herded together, they present a tempting target — kill zones, and not just for those who may wish to bomb them. Daesh and Al-Qaeda are adept already at recruiting in some informal safe zones in Syria.
In effect, there are unofficial safe zones in Syria where civilians are relatively safe and fighting is absent. Rather than taking a confrontational approach, which in all likelihood would fail, the most effective way to help innocent Syrians is to work to improve the safety and viability of these areas.
Everything returns to achieving the goal of a political solution to the Syrian crisis, combined with more effective, transparent monitoring of the cease-fire and genuine cross-border access for humanitarian aid. Ultimately, all of Syria must be a safe zone.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.