Every failing step in the diplomatic process of convincing Assad to lay down arms and agree to a regime transition has brought more attention to the option of creating a so-called ‘safe haven’ in Syria. However, this debate suffers from ambiguity. Concepts of a ‘safe haven’ range from a humanitarian zone – with or without consent of the Syrian regime, aimed at humanitarian relief and protection of civilians – to the creation of a Syrian ‘Benghazi’, a springboard for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and others to intensify armed struggle, often envisaged in the northern Idlib area.
The debate on policy options focuses mostly on conditions for the presence of multinational troops. Meanwhile, a number of other issues hampering the creation of any kind of safe haven are neglected.
The potential for creation of a humanitarian zone is questionable, at the moment. Firstly, the increasingly militarized tone of the West and Syria’s neighbors, who are openly calling for regime change, fuels the impression that the discussion on the ‘safe haven’ option is dominated by the idea of establishing a springboard for armed opposition forces rather than by the wish for creating a humanitarian zone. Not only does this diminish the chances for a negotiated outcome of the current confrontation, but it also puts a strain on the creation of future humanitarian zones with Assad’s (probably reluctant) consent. While consent by the regime is no pre-condition for their creation, it may prove to be one of the few viable solutions for the current international deadlock. It possibly provides the smallest common denominator with China and Russia, which are reluctant to see any foreign military interference against Assad’s wishes. Keeping these two UN Security Council permanent members on board is obviously important in order to prevent another post-intervention fall-out, hampering current and future multinational efforts.
In addition, consent for a purely humanitarian zone brings many advantages, such as lighter presence of international troops. The alternative of an enforced, or “coercive” humanitarian zone would require a lot of additional men, money, material and mandates, since it would be a foreign military intervention rather than a humanitarian mission. Of course, seeking consent would bring about the bizarre situation of relying on the will of the regime that created the need for a humanitarian zone in the first place. It would also add to Assad’s power in the field, enabling him to continue control over the movement of goods and people.
Consent for a humanitarian zone can be hoped for only if the international community gives up the idea of a military springboard in Syria. Clearly, in exchange for his consent, al-Assad would require political neutrality of the deployed international forces, which is currently difficult to envisage.
Secondly, an agreement on the conditions of a humanitarian zone should as well be sought from all, sadly disunited, oppositional forces. The Syrian National Council (SNC) continues to lack legitimacy and is rivalled by other opposition forces. Contentious issues within the opposition are the growing militarization of the uprising, the increasing role of the FSA and often unconnected local militias, as well as the fact that the FSA pits itself as an alternative leadership of the uprising. The lack of an official representative for the opposition, the absence of consensus on how to get rid of the regime and nascent power struggles for a post-Assad Syria, complicate cooperation between factions and decrease the chance of enforcing a consensual humanitarian zone with light international support.
Thirdly, even if a humanitarian zone is depoliticized it does not automatically mean the population within the zone would be unarmed, and this would represent a walk on the wire. Unarmed civilians in a humanitarian zone would be completely dependent on international forces for their protection. On the other hand, if the in-haven population is armed, they would not only risk attack by the regime, but also require the presence of police forces next to a large-scale military force.
Fourthly (as the precedent of Liberia sadly showed), factions within the protected population may turn against each other. Syria harbors a large number of religious and ethnic groups with varying degrees of loyalty towards the regime. Although in some areas certain population groups have flocked together, such as the high concentration of Alawites in the coastal areas, in general, the minorities are geographically spread out, and many localities house several groups. With the rise of insecurity in Syria, primordial identities have gained in strength, leading to increased sectarian tensions. This was shown in the countryside and in Homs, where sectarian violence peaked in December 2011.
Creation of a springboard for opposition forces also raises many questions. First and foremost, it would be under continuous threat from the regime. Moreover, its pull on opposition members would make it easier for regime forces to track them down and arrest them, when they are making their way up north. Meanwhile, unarmed civilians in the rest of the country would be left unprotected.
More importantly, while the virtue of a humanitarian zone is unquestionable, that of a Syrian springboard is less obvious, considering the opportunities the Syrian opposition already enjoys in Turkey. What is the added value at the moment of a similar zone on Syrian soil, open to a counter-attack? Some argue it would serve as a boost to activists’ morale, as if the existence of a few liberated kilometres in Syria’s borderlands would provide people under siege in Homs with hope. It ignores the possibility that failure may actually damage moral or that it could provide the population with a false sense of security based on perceived strong international support.
The cry for help from Syrian citizens should not go unanswered. The international community should take the needs as well as the actual capabilities of the opposition into consideration, and work towards satisfying the former by strengthening the latter. Only then, a true ‘safe haven’ can be established, instead of a beacon for more contention.