Havens or Targets: Would Syria Benefit from a Humanitarian Safe Zone?

Publication Date: 
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Taken in N. Iraq in 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort. Lt. Col. John Abizaid speaking with some Kurds. / Wikimedia Commons

In a protracted armed conflict, particularly a civil war, common sense would dictate that a “safe zone” – a protected area free of weapons and conflict, for the exclusive use of humanitarian actors and civilians – would do nothing but good. Indeed, since the beginning of the ongoing Syrian war, calls for safe zones or humanitarian corridors have been made by a wide variety of actors, including a revived debate as recently as last week. Yet safe zones also entail a number of downsides: they can be prohibitively complex and expensive to create and maintain, and history tells us that rarely is a safe zone truly safe for the duration of a conflict. While concentrating civilians for the purposes of protection, safe zones may become the scenes of concentrated misery and vulnerability if not adequately supplied and assisted. Moreover, such zones have become targets themselves – as notably occurred in Srebrenica, resulting in genocide – especially by armed groups disinclined to respect international humanitarian law (IHL) and the protections it affords to civilian populations. In light of these potential dangers, would the creation of a safe or demilitarized zone be of benefit to civilians in Syria? Or could it simply lead to more bloodshed?

Safe Zones in IHL

Used in several armed conflicts during the 1990s, humanitarian safe zones are designed to provide a haven from the conflict for civilians and aid workers. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, a humanitarian corridor differs from a safe zone in its purpose, form and duration: corridors are brief, temporary demilitarized routes in (for humanitarian aid) and out (for refugees) of a country experiencing violent conflict. While a humanitarian corridor can be (and has been) used to bring aid to the worst hit areas in Syria, the temporary nature and geographic limitations of corridors makes them less effective than safe zones.

IHL provides a foundation for the concept of safe zones in the Geneva Conventions, which allow for “hospital zones and localities so organized as to protect the wounded and sick from the effects of war,” [GC I, Art. 23] (although this originally applied only to members of armed forces, rather than civilians). The fourth Geneva Convention also grants parties to a conflict the right to propose “neutralized zones” for wounded and sick combatants as well as civilians who do not take part in the hostilities [GC IV, Art. 15]. While Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions only applies to international armed conflicts (and therefore is not directly applicable to Syria, a non-international armed conflict), article 60 authorizes the use of demilitarized zones, and in conjunction with state practice, is evidence of an evolving rule of customary international law prohibiting the use of force in protected zones for civilians and noncombatants in areas of conflict. However, both the Conventions and Protocol 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; in the case of Syria, such consent has been expressly denied by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as well as the Russian government.

The only clear way around the consent requirement is through a binding UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution, which could declare a safe or demilitarized zone without the consent of all parties, as it did in the creation of six so-called “safe areas”  during the Balkans conflict in 1993. However, the UNSC’s ability to act is limited by the permanent members’ veto power; Russia and China have made it clear that they will veto any attempts to intervene in Syria. This leaves the possibility of a politically unlikely single- or multistate-intervention effort, which would be a violation of Syria’s sovereignty and would almost certainly trigger a military response from the Syrian and Russian governments. While the rise of the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine has been cited as evidence of the limitation of state sovereignty in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other massive violations of human rights, and therefore a possible legal basis for intervention in the Syrian case, the doctrine still generally requires the authorization of the UN. The 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, which serves as the foundation of R2P, states that the “international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (paragraph 139, emphasis mine). In the words of Jennifer Welsh, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect, R2P is “not an operational principle. It’s a call to action. And it does put the responsibility for using coercive measures in the hands of the Security Council. And so the failures to exercise coercive measures with respect to Syria really come down to issues we’ve had within the Council about agreement on appropriate action.” It has been argued that if a state fails to protect its citizens and the UN fails to act, the “international community” may act even without the Security Council’s permission; however this argument is highly contested due to both the ambiguity of the term “international community,” and the problematic nature of intervention in light of the general international legal prohibition on the use of force, as enshrined in article 2(4) of the UN Charter.

An imperfect solution

Even when implemented, safe zones are by no means a perfect solution to conflict. One problematic aspect of safe zones is the necessity of a limited geographic scope due to logistical and monetary constraints, which by definition leaves some civilians outside the scope of protection and possibly unable to reach the safe zone. It may also increase the likelihood that attacks will be carried out against unprotected civilians in other areas. In other words, since IHL aims to protection all civilians in situations of armed conflict, it seems counterproductive to limit such protection to a particular restricted area.

The creation of safe zones also requires robust and consistent military protection, provided by a third country or an international force, and states are often hesitant to risk getting embroiled in further conflict, especially one as complex as the war in Syria. And even a successfully created safe zone could have legal ramifications for civilians attempting to flee, including potentially impeding their ability to seek asylum in other states and giving host states an excuse to close borders, and send refugees back to the safe zone in Syria. 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. The creation of safe zones, therefore, can actually trap civilians and further exacerbate the burden on states offering funding and protection for the zones. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has noted, “[on] the idea of a safe zone inside Syria to keep the refugees there, our experience in the past is not a positive one. Remember the safe zone in Srebrenica in Bosnia and the tragedy that has created?” As evidenced by the 1995 genocidal massacres in the designated “safe area” of Srebrenica, if the military forces protecting the safe zone are absent, insufficient or unauthorized to take action to prevent violence within the zone, safe zones are likely to fail. 

A different and perhaps more applicable example of the use of safe zones may be found in Operation Provide Comfort. From 1991-1996, the United States, France, Turkey, and the United Kingdom initiated Operation Provide Comfort to create a safe zone in northern Iraq for millions of Iraqi Kurds fleeing retaliation by the Iraqi government after the first Gulf war. This operation included the presence of international troops on the ground, air power enforcing a no-fly zone, and humanitarian aid supplied by air. Although the joint forces claimed authorization under UNSC Resolution 688, the resolution did not explicitly allow for troops or a no-fly zone; nonetheless, it is widely considered one of the most successful uses of a safe zone, although notably in a post-conflict situation. It provided adequate security for the Kurds, prevented attacks and reprisals from the Iraqi government, and maintained the necessary international support; while it did not provide a long-term solution to the conflict between Iraq and its Kurdish population, it saved thousands of lives and created an autonomous zone that still maintains a surprising level of stability to the present day.

An international tightrope walk

If the parallel example for Syria is Bosnia, as has been suggested, then a militarily-enforced safe zone represents a very fine line for the international community to walk: on one side, too much of a military presence or involvement in the conflict will likely escalate the conflict and may result in military entanglements and mission creep; but too little leaves peacekeepers and monitors helpless or unwilling to prevent the horrific massacre of civilians, as in Srebrenica. But if the example of Operation Provide Comfort is used as a model, there is room to hope that a dedicated military force with clear objectives may be able to balance that fine line. The United States and others have been understandably reluctant to put “boots on the ground” in another Middle Eastern country (although that may be changing); but as evidenced by the relative peace and success of Iraqi Kurdistan, not every military operation is doomed to become a quagmire.

With careful planning and sustained international political, financial, and logistical support, a safe zone in Syria could save hundreds of thousands of lives and ease the pressures of the civil war, impacting the region for decades to come. The dangers posed by a weak and unprotected safe zone, however, represent an unacceptable risk to civilian lives. A safe zone must be considered an “all or nothing” proposition: either the international community, or a significant segment of it, commits to continued support for a safe zone and honors those commitments, or the idea of a safe zone should be abandoned entirely; for civilians, there is no safe middle ground. The upcoming G20 summit in Turkey represents an opportunity for the international community to discuss the Syrian conflict, but after nearly 200,000 Syrians have been killed and over four million made refugees, it is time for the international community to act.  

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