Respected former U.S. diplomats Nicholas Burns and James Jeffrey published a Washington Post op-ed last week calling on the U.S. military to lead the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. The authors propose, “to locate it over 25 to 30 miles south of the Turkish border. ... Its central purpose would be to help local forces drive out the Islamic State and to provide a haven for civilians until the war can be brought to a close.” Burns and Jeffrey further acknowledge some of the difficulties involved with their proposal, admitting that, “the United States would have to deploy U.S. soldiers on the ground inside Syria along the Turkish border in order to recruit the majority of the zone’s soldiers from Turkey and other NATO allies, as well as the Sunni Arab states.” This safe haven would be further protected by a no-fly zone operating primarily out of Turkish airbases.
This proposal deserves serious analysis and consideration. However, it is based upon a false claim repeated often by those endorsing interventions into the Syrian civil war: “It would restrict the operations of the rampaging Syrian air force—the largest killer of civilians in the conflict.” This is false, according to data compiled by the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a non-governmental organization. The VDC determined that through mid-September 2015, there had been 85,404 civilians killed in the civil war: 28,277 by shootings and mass killings, 27,006 by mortar, artillery, and rocket attacks, and 18,866 by “Syrian Government Air Attacks.” As I wrote in 2013, any military intervention that claims to protect civilians from harm must be based upon how civilians are actually being harmed, not based upon the level of military commitment that can be supported by U.S. domestic politics. Actually protecting civilians from shootings and mortar attacks requires a level of cost, commitment, and risk that is presently unacceptable within the United States.