How Not to Protect Syrian Civilians

Interventions that claim to help noncombatants must account for how they are actually being harmed.

Tents housing internally displaced people in Khirbet Al-Joz, a town near the Syrian-Turkish border (Ammar Abdullah / Reuters)

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.

Moreover, even if the United States and some coalition of outside powers decided to protect civilians from the Syrian air force, a no-fly zone exclusively over northern Syria would not achieve this. Both Syrian and Russian air power is (indiscriminately) being used, overwhelmingly along a roughly north-south line running from Aleppo to the Damascus suburbs—territory that would be entirely unprotected from this hypothetical no-fly zone. In fact, according to the VDC, since September 2015, over 1,000 civilians, including 300 children, have been killed by Russian air strikes. Though there is no comparable data, Russia assuredly is killing more civilians with air power today than the Syrian regime.

Of course, the no-fly zone could be extended to protect civilians in the areas where they are being killed, and against the actual perpetrators—i.e., Russia. But this would place the patrolling aircraft at far greater risk of being shot down by anti-aircraft missiles, would routinely require that those aircraft operate in close proximity with Russian combat jets flying out of the Latakia Airport, and ultimately would mandate shooting down Russian aircraft that violate the expanded no-fly zone. In reality, the most likely outcome of any no-fly zone over northern Syria would be to further deepen the U.S. military commitment in Syria, and gradually expand the initial military objectives, as happened with no-fly zones in Iraq (regime change), Bosnia-Herzegovina (15-day bombing campaign, plus British and French shelling of Bosnian Serbs leading to diplomatic settlement), and Libya (regime change).

One other claim that Burns and Jeffrey make is worth evaluating. They write that the safe zone “would also hinder the use of military power by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah against the resistance.” This could certainly be true for rebel groups operating out of the safe zone, assuming that the United States and coalition partners defend the rebels while they are within the safe zone. Of course, the unresolvable dilemma of declaring a safe zone for civilians to receive humanitarian assistance, and for armed rebel groups to operate out of, is that the safe zone would actually be a war zone. As we know from UN-declared safe zones in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in sub-Saharan Africa, combatants will use it to rest, recruit, and recover, thereby placing all civilians residing there at grave risk.

Humanitarian interventions that claim their objective is the protection of noncombatants should be based upon the realities on the ground. Moreover, they should not make harm to the noncombatants—who the intervention was intended to save in the first place—more likely. The real concern with Burns and Jeffrey’s ambitious proposal is that it neither reflects what is happening in Syria today, nor would likely reduce the overall level of violence (from all sources). Whether it would significantly increase the likelihood of a brokered diplomatic outcome that ends the brutal five-plus-year civil war is difficult to assess without clarifying information of who would participate, and how the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran would react.

This post appears courtesy of Council on Foreign Relations.