In the most basic terms, safe zones are “areas designated by agreement of parties to an armed conflict in which military forces will not deploy or carry out attacks,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). In some cases, they can also include “no-fly” zones, which would bar all parties from using the airspace for operations. In theory, a safe zone is a pocket of safety surrounded by conflict in an otherwise hostile environment.
In principle, safe zones are meant to provide protection for civilians, but in the case of Syria they have been considered for a multitude of other reasons – including returning refugees, stopping the flow of civilians fleeing to neighboring countries and enabling foreign or local powers to exert control over an area.
Why isn’t the U.N. doing more to create safe zones in Syria?
In some cases, United Nations Security Council resolutions can create safe zones. The Geneva Conventions recognize similar initiatives such as “protected zones” and “demilitarized areas,” and allow “special agreements” centered on improving civilian protection.
However, in February the head of the U.N. refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, said that safe zones in Syria would “not be set up because they will not be safe enough for people to go back,” adding “with the fragmentation, the number of actors, the presence of terrorist groups, it’s not the right place to think of that solution.”
He’s not wrong. The threat from ISIS sleeper cells and the challenge of ensuring that the plethora of parties involved on all sides of the conflict comply with a resolution would result in “insecurity” that would make many civilians “wary of returning,” Syrian military expert Nawar Oliver said.
What’s more, past U.N. Security Council resolutions to create safe zones in conflict areas have sometimes failed. In April 1993, for example, Resolution 819 declared the Srebrenica enclave a safe area. But U.N. peacekeeping forces failed to protect the area, which “led to the single biggest atrocity” in the Bosnia-Herzegovina war, according to HRW. When Srebrenica fell in 1995, the NGO said, it “showed the weakness of the international community’s professed commitment to safeguard regions it declared in 1993 to be ‘safe areas’ under U.N. protection.”
Why is Trump not talking to Turkey about safe zones in Syria?
Turkey and the U.S. have both advocated safe zones in Syria in the past, but it is still unclear whether the two countries’ leaders plan to join forces to create these areas in Syria.
Turkish and American policy in Syria has not always been aligned, particularly in recent years. In 2014, Washington and Ankara mulled over the idea of creating a “buffer zone” in Syria on its northern border with Turkey once the area had been cleared of ISIS fighters. At that point, the buffer zone was expected to stretch about 68 miles (109km) east of the Euphrates River, the majority of which was controlled by Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters and Free Syrian Army units.
While both the U.S. and Turkey are fighting ISIS in northern Syria, they have chosen to do so with opposing partners on the ground. Though Turkey claimed its entry into Syria was an expansion of its efforts to target the so-called Islamic State, Ankara’s initial bombings also hit Syrian Kurdish positions, and it soon became clear that the Kurds were a top priority for Turkey’s operations in Syria. The U.S., on the other hand, has developed a significant partnership with Kurdish fighters, some of whom are part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the battle against ISIS.
If the U.S. were to create a safe zone in northern Syria, a “realistic” option would be to partner with Turkey, which would be tasked with securing the area on the ground, according to Christopher Kozak, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. However, a safe zone in Syria’s southern region is also a possibility.
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