The latest move by Turkey to impose a safe zone in northern Syria, as predicted, has ushered in a wave of violence as Turkish forces look to clear the area of Syrian YPG fighters who until recently had been aligned with the United States in its fight against the Islamic State.
A temporary “pause” in the violence, which calls for the Kurdish rebels to give up their heavy arms and solidifies Turkey’s position, looks unlikely to stick. Kurdish groups are already reporting violations of the cease-fire agreement.
All of the above speaks to the dangers of imposing safe zones in the middle of civil wars.
Why safe zones sound like a safe choice — but aren’t
Safe zones are sold to locals and the international public as “win-win” solutions — defensive measures aimed at containing or “de-escalating” conflicts. Lawmakers are attracted to them because of their apparent strategic (and legal) flexibility, as well as their humanitarian appeal. Recall that back in 2015, even then-candidate Donald Trump promised a “beautiful safe zone” in Syria.
Military leaders are less enamored of safe zones. That is because of their legal ambiguity and dual-use nature, which invites abuse in their application. Safe zones tend to be in peripheral (or disputed) areas of limited state control.
By simultaneously encouraging the creation of a humanitarian corridor for civilians or refugees to flock to, while also requiring a robust security mission to enforce the zone, this only enhances the fog of war, creating a blurred front line that puts civilians in harm’s way.
Research shows that safe zones are poor mechanisms for protecting refugees or displaced people, whether from military targeting or political persecution.
Safe zones were first introduced in the natural sciences, as a way of establishing some kind of unspoiled “green zone” in nature — a barrier to prevent infections (or in this case, rebel violence) from spreading. The trouble with this analogy is it invites collective action issues.
The demand for a safe zone arises because of a state failing to provide some public good — in this case, security — to its citizens. So in the case of Syria, Turkey has offered to build homes and provide public services in its proposed safe zone — which would stretch over 275 miles wide and 20 miles deep — to attract its 3.5 million refugees.
This will inevitably require some level of coercion and military and police presence. It is virtually impossible, especially in the midst of a multidimensional civil war, for a safe zone not to be securitized.
Safe zones escalate conflicts — not vice versa
Displaced civilians need to feel safe and secure to move to a safe zone. Resettled Syrian refugees have been promised by the Turks a land of milk and honey. But this swath of northern Syria has been chronically undeveloped. And nearby Islamic State detention centers and rumors of Islamic State sleeper cells do not bode well for the options for those repatriated: They will be forced to choose between Syrian-backed militias, Turkey or the Islamic State.
It’s virtually impossible to disentangle the strategic from the humanitarian aspects of a safe zone.
Which is why safe zones tend to escalate conflicts, not vice versa. Again, the logic is straightforward: By creating a security vacuum where sovereignty is suspended, this is an open invitation for outside powers to engage in offensive operations across borders. We saw evidence of this during the Vietnam War (along the 17th parallel separating North and South Vietnam).
In the buffer zone created by apartheid-era South Africa during the war in Angola, South African forces killed livestock, poisoned wells and blocked the distribution of food. History also suggests that these zones often become havens for drug, arms or sex trafficking by organized criminals, as research of mine in Myanmar supports.
Indeed, despite the recent pause in hostilities in Syria, safe zones do not typically lead to cease-fires that might resolve a conflict. If anything, perversely, they actually prolong wars. Turkey was given a green light to control a 20-mile-deep strip of land on the Syrian side of the border, yet it is unclear whether this safe zone would include areas now controlled by the Russian army, which moved in to fill the gap left by U.S. forces.
Nor is it clear what role the advancing Syrian army will play when it comes to enforcing the safe zone. If anything, the safe zone has only emboldened Turkey’s military, even as it has dragged in other players, further complicating an already complex and tenuous situation.
Of course, there have been some examples of safe zones tamping down violence and providing a modicum of stability, perhaps most famously in northern Iraq after the Gulf War. But there the U.S. military was imposing a no-fly zone on a defeated government in Baghdad, and there were few outside powers involved. In Syria, its 1,000 soldiers notwithstanding, Washington is largely a bystander.
A safe zone will solve neither Washington’s humanitarian nor its strategic objectives in Syria. Contrary to the White House, it does nothing to resolve the region’s “endless wars.”
Rather, it is a gift to Ankara that risks escalating the war by drawing in more outside powers, giving Washington less political or military leverage, and killing more civilians by falsely promising them a haven.
During the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war, for example, a “no fire zone” in the northeast led to the government’s deliberate shelling of medical facilities emblazoned with the Red Cross logo. In Bosnia, famously, demilitarized “zones of separation” may have unwittingly enabled ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serb forces.
The violence of the past few days suggests that a safe zone in Syria would probably suffer a similar fate.
Lionel Beehner is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy.