The Hidden Danger of Safe Zones in Syria

David Ignatius calls for creating protected areas to save civilians from Assad and ISIS. But that may put the vulnerable at even greater risk.

Children inspect rubble as smoke rises behind them during clashes between forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and the Army of Islam fighters, near Damascus, Syria. (Bassam Khabieh / Reuters)

In 1993, during the brutal civil war in Bosnia, the United Nations declared the Bosnian Muslim town of Srebrenica to be a “safe area” for civilians, protected by several hundred Dutch peacekeepers. Two years later, on July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb units overran the town. The out-gunned Dutch fired warning shots but decided not to put up any serious resistance. That evening, the Dutch commander drank a toast with the Bosnian Serb general, at the latter’s insistence, as they discussed the fate of the civilians. “I’m a piano player,” implored the Dutch officer in response to the general’s threats, “don’t shoot the piano player.” The pianist survived but many of the refugees did not. The Bosnian Serbs methodically massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. It was one of the worst atrocities on the European continent since the end of World War II.

It’s important to remember Srebrenica when considering the wisdom of creating “safe areas” in Syria. David Ignatius’s Atlantic article on the rise of ISIS is required reading for anyone interested in understanding the roots of the group’s insurgency. He’s surely right that “halfway American intervention”—as in Iraq and Libya, where Washington toppled regimes and then failed to build effective local forces to protect those countries’ populations—only invites chaos and disorder. Trying to win on the cheap may produce the worst of all worlds. As Carl von Clausewitz once wrote, “A short jump is certainly easier than a long one: but no one wanting to get across a wide ditch would begin by jumping halfway.”

But does it follow that a greater leap is the solution? What if the chasm is too wide to jump?

In Syria, Ignatius favors a more muscular international response, with the goal of building a new post-Assad regime through a regional political process. Crucially, he wants to create protected areas for Syrian civilians, or “safe zones in the north and south, where humanitarian assistance can be directed, Syrian refugees can return, and political compromise can be rediscovered.”

The appeal is obvious. By constructing a humanitarian ark, protected from air and ground attack, America and its partners might reduce the barbarism of the war and diminish the escalating refugee crisis engulfing the Middle East and Europe. The safe areas could be a stark counterpoint to the brutal ISIS caliphate—a province of peace. Turkey, for example, has long called for a no-fly zone in the north of Syria, to protect civilians from Assad’s air force. France has also floated the possibility of building safe areas for refugees. A number of U.S. congressmen have made similar calls, including the Republican House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, Republican Senator John McCain, and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine.

But, unfortunately, the safe-zone idea faces several—probably fatal—problems.

If the U.S. and its partners create a safe zone, they are responsible for the consequences. The international community cannot encourage or pressure vulnerable civilians to gather in one place inside of a war zone—let alone return home from relative safety abroad—unless their protection is guaranteed.

But how exactly would these safe zones be guarded? Stopping Assad’s aerial bombardment is challenging but doable with U.S. and allied air power. But most of the deaths in Syria have resulted from ground attacks with guns and shells. Preventing these assaults requires soldiers on the ground with the commitment and capability to prevent a second Srebrenica. Neither the United States nor Turkey seems willing to send large numbers of troops to Syria. Kurdish forces might be an option, but the Turkish government doesn’t want the Kurds running a pseudo-state on its border. What about mobilizing moderate rebels as the sentinels of the safe areas? As Ignatius acknowledges, the recent $500 million U.S. program to “train and equip” moderates completely unraveled.

In fact, a safe zone could actually become a target for jihadist groups. Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS may see attacks on the protected areas as a powerful symbolic move against the West. After all, when Washington sent a small force of moderate rebels into Syria this past summer, they were immediately attacked and almost wiped out by al-Nusra—perhaps to send a message.

Joe Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, concluded: “There is no indication these so-called safe zones will actually be safe for civilians.”

In addition, safe zones may have the unintended consequence of legitimizing violence elsewhere in Syria. If the United States and its partners create a safe zone, are they not implicitly constructing an unsafe zone? Are armed factions free to murder and pillage as long as they go elsewhere? Imagine if the Chicago police announced they were creating a safe zone in the wealthy Gold Coast neighborhoodwouldn’t the implication be that the rest of the city was a lesser priority, or even being written off?

And there are also dangers from the U.S. perspective. Creating a safe zone is a major intervention in Syria. In doing so, America would commit itself in yet another country, and put its credibility at stake. As the United States was preparing to invade Iraq in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a warning later dubbed the Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.” Building a safe zone means following the pottery class rule: You make it, you own it.

Safe zones can work in a humanitarian crisis if great powers and regional actors are united and committed to protecting civilians. In 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, NATO forces created a demilitarized zone to protect Kurds in northern Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s forces. But this operation involved thousands of ground personnel, air power, and coordination by a united coalition. And, crucially, having just lost one war against the United States, Saddam was not eager to start another.

These conditions don’t exist in Syria. International willpower is shaky at best. The coalition is disunited. Rebel groups might see a safe zone as an auspicious objective. The State Department recently concluded there was no “viable option” for creating a safe zone.

Until a political transition begins in Syria, and the jihadists are pushed back, it may be better to protect refugees in the real safe zone—Turkey and other relatively peaceful neighbors. Otherwise, the ark could be a trap.