BEIRUT – For the past five years, various foreign powers, directly or indirectly involved in the war in Syria, have debated whether or not to establish safe zones in Syria. Discussions have ramped up in recent months since U.S. president Donald Trump vowed to do exactly that. However, de facto zones of control, that essentially act as safe zones, are mostly already in place along three of Syria’s four international borders.
Rhetoric in the safe zone debate was initially focused on civilian protection, but recently the strategy has also been proposed as a way to prevent refugees and alleged “terrorists” from fleeing to neighbouring countries and Europe. Yet, regional and international actors have largely used the de facto safe zones already in place to further their respective political and military goals, rather than for humanitarian purposes. As it stands, the existing safe-zone strategy has been gradually put in place to further the broader goal of partitioning Syria into different zones of influence.
These existing zones are either formally or informally under the control of regional powers and their Syrian proxies. The foreign players justify their military, political, economic and, in some cases, cultural and sectarian influence on these Syrian territories under the premise that they are fighting terrorism.
In 2013, the Iran-funded Lebanese militia Hezbollah began “cleansing” the Syrian-Lebanese border, and in just a year, achieved major military and political success in Homs, one of the fiercest strongholds of the insurgency. Today, the joint Hezbollah-Iran “safe belt” runs from Homs and its countryside – linked to the Russia-dominated coastal region – to the plains and hills between Damascus and the Golan Heights.
Near the Israeli-controlled part of Golan, Jordan has been exerting control on armed opposition groups in the Southern Daraa region and the Yarmouk valley since 2014, with tacit consent from the U.S. and its two main allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Since last year, the Hashemite kingdom has also tried to widen its influence to territory loosely controlled by the so-called Islamic State group between the Syrian-Iraqi Tanf border crossing and the southern districts of the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region.
The third de facto safe zone is in northern Syria and is dominated by two major players. Kurdish forces control the increasingly autonomous Rojava region that extends from the Turkish-Iraqi border to the Afrin district in northwestern Syria. The Turkish military has a rival presence in the area, where Ankara’s direct influence in the Jarablus-al Bab-Azaz polygon has prevented Kurdish forces from consolidating its across the three Rojava ”cantons” of Afrin, Kobani and Jazira.
Despite their clear military and political purposes, these buffer zones have generally proved to be safer for civilians than other Syrian regions, with far fewer airstrikes and artillery bombardments than in the conflict’s hotspots. Yet more than 15 million people living in these areas struggle to survive, exposed to the elements of nature with scarce access to humanitarian aid and limited provision of basic services.
Demilitarization and restoration of services should instead be accompanied by infrastructural and social reconstruction in accordance with the needs and the political views of both local communities and the returnees.
However, addressing these issues does not seem to be a priority for those controlling these zones. In January, Russia, Iran and Turkey concluded the first round of negotiations in the Kazakh capital of Astana by asserting that their priority in Syria, first and foremost, would be to enforce the nationwide ceasefire between governmental forces and opposition factions that came into effect in December.
The truce has had a positive impact on local communities exposed to violence along the Aleppo-Damascus axis. According to the Violation Documentation Center (VDC), 661 civilians were killed in Syria in January, less than half of the 1,584 civilians killed in November 2016. The Observatory for Human Rights in Syria (SOHR) put the January death toll at 645 civilians, claiming it was “the lowest monthly death toll in four years.”
From a geopolitical standpoint, however, the truce highlights the Russian-Iranian-Turkish trio’s goal of formally partitioning Syria along the current and almost frozen battle lines. Through the Astana process, the three countries have succeeded in getting their respective proxies to respect the emerging new order.
When Turkish-backed forces attacked al-Bab, the ISIS stronghold near the Turkish border, they risked confrontation with pro-regime forces who were advancing on the area from the west. However, there have been only few armed skirmishes between them. Following the fall of al-Bab, Russia negotiated an agreement between the Kurdish Manbij Military Council and Syrian governmental forces that stipulated that pro-Ankara militiamen and Damascus forces should not attack each other.
Meanwhile, a delegation from Jordan was invited to attend the second and third round of Astana talks last month, with the explicit purpose of expanding, to the southern region, the radius of the temporary cease-fire based on the December truce, with the implicit aim of recognizing the role of Amman and its partners in partitioning Syria.
Moreover, just a few days before the third set of Astana talks, Ahmad Jarba, a leading exiled member of the Syrian opposition with close ties to Saudi Arabia, visited the Russian capital by invitation of Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Boganov. That Moscow meeting and the recent summit between Turkish president Tayyip Recep Erdogan and Saudi King Salman in Riyadh could hint that the Saudis are ready to negotiate within the Astana structure.
In this framework, Ankara – who has been building a wall along the North-Western part of its frontier with Syria – also seems interested in widening its influence in the Idlib region, the last major opposition stronghold in the north. The ongoing bloody confrontation among extremist groups – including the former Syrian al-Qaida branch and its rival, the increasingly pro-Ankara Ahrar al-Sham militia – could not be explained only as a fratricidal struggle for local power, but also as the effect of Ankara’s efforts to create a buffer zone along another segment of its border with Syria.
While safe zones could work in the short term to reduce violence and allow some civilians to return home, the current state of these de facto zones of control indicates that, contrary to what foreign leaders periodically repeat to justify the need for such areas, they would not be sufficient for a long-term solution for refugees and those internally displaced within the country.
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