Safe zones in Syria need to be sustainable
Setting up the safe zones inside Syria to securely resettle millions of refugees would require military intervention, but creating an area free from conflict is one thing, sustaining it against threats from the likes of Islamic State and President Bashar Assad’s forces is quite another.
The Syrian war has driven nearly 9 million people from their homes and the fighting is driving more civilians from their villages, towns and cities each day. Some 5 million Syrians are believed to have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
Turkey and some Arab countries have repeatedly called for the creation of a safe zone that would protect refugees in secured areas inside Syria, sparing them the economic, political and security burden.
But neither the United States nor Russia have shown much enthusiasm for safe zones, or even no-fly zones in Syria, saying it would be risky and hard to achieve.
Washington cited Syrian government military capabilities as one objection, saying Syria’s surface-to-air missiles could threaten pilots policing the zones.
But many analysts noted that Israeli warplanes have struck targets throughout Syria without challenge from either the Syrian Air Force or government air defences, and the US-led alliance has attacked terrorist positions inside Syria without challenge. It appears Syrian air defence capabilities have become too weak to stand in the way a safe zone.
Moscow meanwhile objected to safe zones because it fears Syrian rebels would use the areas to take refuge and build up their capabilities to fight the Syrian regime, which it supports.
Nevertheless reports have resurfaced that both Turkey and Jordan are considering reviving the idea of setting up safe zones along their borders with Syria.
Alarmed by the growing influence of Kurdish rebel fighters in north-eastern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned he would not tolerate the redrawing of Syrian borders.
Citing deteriorating conditions, the Turkish military then deployed extra tanks and artillery along its southern border.
According to Turkish media, while the government favoured military action, the generals objected to unilaterally creating a safe zone without political cover from the United Nations Security Council.
Jordanian media reports also told of increased efforts by the kingdom to establish a safe zone to limit the growing influence of Islamic radical fighters as well as Shia militias supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The Jordanian media said Amman has been using the frequent shelling of the Jordanian border-town of Al-Ramtha as a pretext to seek international support to establish a safe zone along its borders.
Tribal-based Jordan is also worried about the effects of radical groups, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), on Jordanian tribes. ISIS has occupied large parts of the Syrian tribal heartland of Deir ez-Zor and nearby Bedouin areas, and both have groups linked to Jordanian tribes.
On July 6th, Jordanian media reported the arrest of an IRGC operative in the kingdom on charges of smuggling explosives with the intent of carrying out terrorist attacks in Jordan. Both Turkey and Jordan have reasons for creating safe zones along their borders with Syria and they have the means to do it unilaterally if need be.
But maintaining the safe zones would be more difficult.
Turkey, with the second biggest military in NATO, is more than capable of occupying an area 30 kilometres inside Syria and could use anti-missile batteries already at the border to defend the safe zone. Syrian air power and air defences have been largely depleted by the civil war and are unlikely to be able to confront the Turkish Air Force or the US-supplied Patriot missiles.
The same can be said for the Jordanian military, which is believed to be more than capable of establishing a 30-kilometre deep safe zone, especially in Daraa province.
This would enable Jordan to push back radical Syrian rebel forces as well as IRGC militiamen and reduce ISIS influence on Jordanian tribes.
But both Turkey and Jordan lack the financial capability to sustain such a safe zone for very long, let alone the lengthy commitment of manpower and resources that may prove necessary.
Though Jordan and Turkey have a strong desire to create safe zones and have the ability to establish them, both would need the support of the United Nations to finance the operation and provide the political cover.