In September, the Islamic State (ISIS) launched an offensive on the Syrian town of Kobani, a strategic town on the Turkish border. The move prompted over 180,000 Syrians to cross the border in the largest displacement ever seen in the Syrian conflict.
The surge of refugees brought the Turkish proposal for a humanitarian buffer zone to the forefront of international attention. Over the past few weeks, the international community has been actively discussing a range of proposals with Turkey and deliberating on the establishment of a possible no-fly zone or safe zone.
But the idea itself faces serious questions about feasibility. Establishing a buffer zone along the full length of Turkey’s 560-mile border with Syria would be a potentially massive military and financial undertaking that could put participating countries in direct confrontation with the Assad regime.
“If you establish a no fly-zone, in essence you are threatening the Assad regime to attack any airplanes or other military incursions into that area, which is war,” says Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Ferris spoke to Syria Deeply about the difficulties of and opportunities for establishing a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Syria Deeply: Can you describe the security and logistical challenges of operating a buffer zone between Syria and Turkey?
Ferris: You need to think carefully about what a buffer zone is and what it is intended to do. It can be a place for opposition fighters to arm and mobilize. It can also be a place to protect civilians. Both scenarios present a different set of challenges.
If you establish a no-fly zone, in essence you are threatening to attack any of the Assad’s regimes airplanes or other military incursions into that area, which is war. And then you have to question whether the countries or people setting up that buffer zone are willing to go as far as to actually invade another countries’ territory without the permission of its government. There are military and logistical issues in terms of defending and administering the zone, and deciding who will be in charge of it if it isn’t the Assad regime, and questions of implications for other countries if the Syrian government doesn’t approve of what they are doing.
There are more serious issues about what happens if those imposing the buffer zone can’t protect the civilians who think it’s a safe place to be and decide to move in. There is also the concern that a safe zone will put those civilians at greater risk of being targeted.
Syria Deeply: What legal rights do Syrians have living in a safe zone, and who would enforce those rights? Is there a precedent where a safe zone has worked in other countries?
Ferris:Inside Syria, Syrians would be classified as internally displaced persons, which under international law puts them under the responsibility of the national government. They therefore wouldn’t have any particular legal status in that area. In terms of protecting them or keeping them safe, there is a precedent where Iraqis were displaced and Turkey wouldn’t let them in, and in response a safe zone was created. It worked out pretty well – the Iraqis were there for a couple months and most of them returned to Iraq, and the Iraqi government backed down from carrying out military action against them.
The situation in Syria is more complicated: it is unlikely Syrians will be able to return to Syria anytime soon, and there could be a stigma and danger if they tried to return home after leaving the safe zone. There could be a suspicion among authorities that they were in collaboration with the opposition, particularly if that safe zone wasn’t just used as a demilitarized area to protect people, but was used to support the opposition. Any time you mix military action with the protection of civilians, you put them in danger. The Assad regime could argue that they are a military target and a threat to the regime. On legal grounds, it is really quite shaky.
Syria Deeply: Bab al-Salaam IDP camp has been bombed several times by the regime. To what extent does the concentration of Syrians in one area put them at greater risk of similar attacks? What measures can be taken to ensure their protection?
Ferris:They are certainly at risk now, with attacks on IDP camps and other vulnerable people inside Syria. In terms of protecting Syrians, it is safer for them to leave the country – they are safer in Turkey than they would be on the Syrian side of the border, with or without a buffer zone.
My fear is that the creation of a buffer zone would give Turkey an excuse to deport or refuse entry to Syrians fleeing their lives. They could send Syrians back to a safe zone without feeling guilty that they are sending them back to a dangerous situation.
Syria Deeply: Neighboring countries are reportedly shutting their borders to Syrian refugees. To what extent does the creation of a buffer zone create a dangerous precedent where they can be pushed back across the border, putting them at greater risk?
Ferris: It’s a very real risk. Over a year ago, I spoke to a Jordanian official who told me we needed better programs for Syrian IDPs so that they wouldn’t cross the border into Jordan. If you have a buffer zone with international support, it might give greater credence to governments to kick refugees out. At the same time, host countries are facing enormous pressures with the large number of refugees and the strain on their economies and social systems. The only answer we have is to provide assistance to them, but we’ve seen in the last few days with the U.N. World Food Programme cuts that we aren’t providing enough.
Syria Deeply: The U.N. has indicated that it would deliver aid within a buffer zone, even if the zone was established without a Security Council resolution. What are some of the administrative challenges in setting up and implementing a buffer zone?
Ferris:The question depends on who is in charge – is it going to be a military operation where the military distributes humanitarian assistance? This is what happened in northern Iraq in 1991. Is it going to be the U.N. operating in the buffer zone without the sanction of the Syrian government? Is it going to be Syrian and Turkish groups who are already providing the bulk of the assistance cross-border into northern Syria? Who is going to make sure the humanitarian assistance is distributed on the basis of need, not on who is the most effective opposition fighter? There are a host of practical questions about how this would actually work in practice.
Syria Deeply: If Aleppo were to fall to either the regime or ISIS, there is a possibility that millions of Syrians would flee north. Can the buffer zone be introduced in this context? If so, what are some of the challenges of doing so?
Ferris:If a buffer zone or safe zone was established where the principal purpose was to protect civilians, it would have to be a demilitarized area where weapons weren’t allowed in, the stockpiling of arms was prohibited, and a place where military operations weren’t carried out.
That was one of the problems of Srebrenica in the 1990s when a safe zone was established with Dutch peacekeepers, and yet it wasn’t demilitarized. The Serbian government felt like the Bosnian government was using it as an opportunity to recoup, recover, rearm and fire out of the safe zone. In the eyes of the Serbian authorities, it was no longer intended primarily to protect civilians; it was a military target. If you were to demilitarize the zone and have a transparent administration – the U.N., or U.S. and Turkish aid agencies – that were very clear about what they were bringing in, who it was going to, it would be a very helpful condition that would strictly be a safe zone and not a place for military forces to organize opposition.
Humanitarian actors are very wary about the idea of a safe zone after what happened in Srebrenica. It was the kiss of death in terms of future ability to respond creatively to these needs.
Syria Deeply: What would your recommendation be to provide safety and aid to Syrians inside and those fleeing the conflict?
Ferris:There are very few options. I think we need a much bolder humanitarian initiatives, like Western governments saying they will accept 500,000 refugees for resettlement, as an effective way to demonstrating shared responsibility among host governments. In terms of assistance inside Syria, we need to put pressure on the Russians, Iranians and other actors to ensure that people are safe within the country. People don’t want to leave their homes. Under international law, the Assad regime has a legal responsibility to protect the displaced within its borders. The U.N. has been very weak inside of Syria in terms of challenging some of the restrictions on their movements, but they need more political support as well. You shouldn’t be able to get away with denying access to humanitarian agencies ready to provide support.
From what I’ve read about some of the deliberations in the U.S. military and the idea of a buffer zone, there is a lot of resistance to the idea. Part of it is because they understand some of the difficulties in enforcing it, but maybe don’t understand the full complexity of providing humanitarian assistance in such a zone. But I also know there is no end in sight – no one expects things to improve in Syria. Most people in the region think the war will go on for years.
If you start something like a buffer zone and you aren’t prepared to maintain it, you may make things worse. The basic principle of humanitarian work is to not do any harm and to not make things worse, even if you can’t make them better.