The creation of a safe zone in Syria was consistently ruled-out by the Obama Administration as a fraught, expensive and partial solution to the crisis, despite international calls for action. In a 10 February interview, Syrian President Assad alluded to some of these complexities and rejected President Trump’s plan to establish such an area in Syria. The idea of a safe zone was raised multiple times in President Trump’s busy first week of executive orders, interviews, calls and tweets. It first appeared in a leaked draft of Trump’s Executive Order on immigration on 26 February, and although it was omitted from the final document, this indicates that such a plan is likely tied up with the Administration’s intent to address refugee flows in the region and accelerate the fight against ISIS—the draft stated relevant authorities had 90 days to develop and present Trump with a proposal. President Trump has also discussed the idea with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the last week, who were reportedly both broadly supportive of the plan, and reaffirmed his intent in an interview with ABC News (US).
Trump’s brief references to what would be a hugely complex endeavour raises a host of questions to which there are currently no answers. The political, legal and practical issues in Syria’s complex landscape are also too many to list in a short post, and it is not clear whether the Trump Administration is considering a safe zone or a no-fly zone (they are two very different undertakings). However, it is still worth examining the safe zone concept and how it has previously unfolded in practice. Despite the questions and obvious practicalities of implementation, there has been a surprisingly consistent level of support within the US establishment, from European governments (e.g. Germany and France) and Middle Eastern Nations additional to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Though of course, US leadership and support is the central determinant of whether any such plan would go ahead.
Establishing a potential safe zone in Syria also raises questions about future US policy given the implications for Australia and its role in the Middle East. What would be expected of Australia as an ally, and how would it fit with the government’s policy and objectives in Syria? To date, Australian objectives have been largely confined to fighting the Islamic State and supporting a political solution to end the Syria crisis. But as the US looks to alter its Syria policy, Australia may also need to review its activities and objectives.
It is difficult to find many previous examples of successful safe zones. Operation Provide Comfort in Northern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War is perhaps the one exception. The underlying rationale of safe zones is to allow civilian populations to escape conflict while receiving humanitarian assistance within their own nation states. This solution was also (at least originally) conceived as an option that stopped short of regime change or full-scale military intervention. Safe zones are therefore tailored for their specific environments and shaped depending on risk and purpose. In this sense no-fly zones are safe zones of sorts, but they do not address ground-based threats or require ground troop deployments. As RAND notes, no-fly zones are cheap to operate in terms of personnel and materiel and political capital, hence their employment in places like Libya. In the case of Syria, both options have been raised but it is broadly recognised ground forces would be required given the complexity of the environment.
Given there are still 6.3 million people internally displaced in Syria, and another 4.9 million refugees in neighbouring countries, theoretically, a properly planned and resourced safe zone would give people an opportunity to escape the violence and access humanitarian aid. They would also remain within Syria, minimising the international dimensions of the refugee issue.
There is a substantial body of academic study on safe zones, largely focusing on Iraq in 1991, Bosnia in 1993, Rwanda in 1995 and Sri Lanka in 2009. These studies demonstrate that without the consent and cooperation of all parties involved—or a military force sufficient to ensure compliance—safe zones fail. A tragic example is the Srebrenica massacre in the UN-designated Bosnian safe zones in 1995. In Syria, the multitude of warring factions and varying strategic interests of external actors mean a safe zone established on the basis of agreement is unlikely. The repeated failure of ceasefire agreements provides further evidence to suggest that any civilian safe zone would need to be heavily enforced and that this cannot be achieved solely from the air.
The landscape in Iraq in 1991 was far simpler—Saddam was the principal belligerent and the international community were united in their intent. Notably, there was also agreement among neighbours and external actors about the way forward, which is not the case in Syria. Compare this to the myriad of actors and goals in the Syrian conflict—it also complicates finding a suitable location for any safe zone. In Iraq, 17,000 coalition troops were required to undertake the initial mission and the coalition also maintained a no-fly zone that lasted until 2003 to ensure ongoing success. In 2016 the Pentagon was quoted estimating a safe zone in Syria would require around 15,000–30,000 troops to enforce. The Obama Administration’s reticence to support a safe zone in Syria was in part due to the presence of Russian and Iranian troops.
While hours could be spent arguing about the efficacy and form of safe zones in Syria, many have pointed out that they are no substitute for a comprehensive strategy to end the conflict as a whole. Safe zones will not provide a solution to the conflict—they only provide an interim solution to the refugee issue. However, they could be the start, or basis, of a more comprehensive plan. Syrian President Assad has suggested that he could see future cooperation with the Trump Administration—provided the US has an overarching political strategy and respects local sovereignty. Any new strategy in Syria is fraught with risk and will involve hard decisions, but as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently noted, the crisis is far from over and the need for assistance is ever present.