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Look back and learn: Safe zones in Iraq and Bosnia

Lessons for Syria in the wake of EU support for "more safe" areas

Tens of thousands of Syrians are already living in camps for the displaced in northern Syria near the border with Turkey which they have been barred from crossing (Andrew McConnell/UNHCR)

A long-standing Turkish proposal to create a so-called safe zone inside Syria, where civilians displaced by fighting could find refuge and assistance without having to leave the country, received a boost last week with an apparent endorsement from European leaders.

The final statement that emerged from the 7 March meeting between the European Union and Turkey on the migration crisis included an agreement to work jointly on improving humanitarian conditions inside Syria with the goal of allowing “the local population and refugees to live in areas which will be more safe”.

Some have interpreted this somewhat oblique reference as the first indication of international support for an idea first touted by Turkey in 2012.  

But do safe zones actually work?

“History has taught us that ‘safe areas’ have rarely been safe,” says Ariane Rummery, spokesperson of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

Here’s what we can learn from past attempts in Iraq and Bosnia.  


Following the US-led Gulf War in 1991, 400,000 mostly Iraqi Kurds fled northern Iraq for Turkey but were prevented from crossing the border to claim asylum. Stranded in the mountainous border area, 1,500 refugees died from the cold while Turkey ignored pleas from UNHCR to open its borders. Rather than exerting pressure on an important ally, the US-led coalition quickly established a safe zone in northern Iraq with the backing of a UN Security Council resolution that characterised the movement of such a large number of refugees as a threat to international peace and security.

According to Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee programme, the resolution marked a turning point in viewing refugees as a threat to security rather than victims of the lack of it.

The safe zone ultimately proved a denial of Kurdish refugees’ right to seek asylum in Turkey. UNHCR accepted it as the least bad humanitarian outcome and took a lead role in the provision of protection and assistance, eventually facilitating the refugees’ voluntary repatriation. 

But in 1997, it warned:

“The non-consensual way in which the safe haven was established and the absence of any recognized authority in the area has had several adverse consequences. Residents have had to contend with a stringent economic blockade imposed by the Baghdad government, which has itself been subjected to sanctions by the Security Council. Living conditions in the area, now a ‘no-fly zone’ patrolled by allied aircraft, have consequently been very difficult for the population.”

Read more:

Four reasons Syrian ‘safe zone’ unlikely to work

Why humanitarians are wary of “humanitarian corridors”

The realistic case for a safe zone in Syria

The hidden danger of safe zones in Syria


The establishment of safe zones in six towns in Bosnia in 1993 highlighted the risks of trying to create such zones without the consent and cooperation of all parties involved. The safe zones failed to protect the town’s residents from constant attack by Bosnian Serb forces, which had not consented to their creation. In 1995, the Serbs conquered two of the safe areas – Srebrenica and Zepa – and committed atrocities that led to the death and disappearance of thousands of people.  

Lessons for Syria?

1. You have to be ready to enforce a safe zone

In the case of northern Iraq, the initial presence of 20,000 NATO troops and a no-fly zone that remained in place until 2003 meant that the Kurdish refugees and the humanitarian workers assisting them were not at significant risk.

“If you’re working in an insecure country, you do need a very strong military presence,” said Jeff Crisp, former head of policy development and evaluation at UNHCR. “The major difference between then and now seems to be the lack of a coalition of countries unified by the same aims,” he added.

The idea of a safe zone in Syria has been widely viewed as impossible to implement without significant military support from the US, but President Barack Obama’s administration has so far rejected the idea, arguing that it would require not only an enforced no-fly zone, but also a significant presence of troops on the ground.

2. You need the consent of all parties

The Geneva Conventions allow for the designation of safe zones with the agreement of all parties to a conflict and providing they are in neutral and demilitarized areas.

“Without full International Humanitarian Law (IHL) safeguards in place, including consent of the government and warring parties and the zone being civilian in character, safety of civilians would be hard to guarantee.” UNHCR’s Rummery told IRIN in response to questions about whether the agency would support the creation of a safe zone in Syria.

In Iraq, the central government in Baghdad had consented to the safe zone, but such agreement would be near impossible in Syria. Experts describe the 96-kilometre stretch of northern Syria that Turkey wants to designate as a safe zone (between the towns of Azaz and Jarabulus) as a highly contested area. It includes the last remaining strip of territory along the Turkish border still under the control of the so-called Islamic State as well as an area near Azaz under the control of moderate opposition groups. About 70,000 people displaced from Aleppo Province by fighting and Russian airstrikes are already staying in eight camps near Azaz, having been barred from crossing into Turkey. []

According to Ege Seçkin, an analyst with the IHS think tank, the area is extremely unsafe because Syrian regime forces are determined to retake it from the opposition.

“It’s a narrow strip of territory over which a lot of parties have an interest and that’s a recipe for disaster,” he told IRIN.

3. You better have the right motivations

Analysts and rights groups also warn that Turkey’s interest in establishing a safe zone is not entirely humanitarian.

“Turkey is also concerned about very strategic interests that are in jeopardy in Syria right now,” said Seçkin. “So it would be hitting two birds with one stone.”

Turkey wants to stem the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey (2.7 million at last count), but also wants to prevent Syrian Kurdish fighters from making further advances in the area. Kurdish groups currently control areas to the west of Azaz and to the east of Jarablus. A safe zone would serve to prevent the establishment of a continuous Kurdish territorial entity in the region.

“When [safe zones] have to do with the containment of refugee flows and military objectives, then I think the risk is of a death trap rather than a protection scheme,” HRW’s Frelick told IRIN, echoing the thoughts of HRW Executive Kenneth Roth in this recent letter to EU leaders. “I can’t think of any instances where they provided effective humanitarian protection.”

So what is the EU thinking?

Even with yesterday’s surprise announcement of a partial Russian withdrawal from Syria, the obstacles to creating a truly safe zone for civilians in the midst of a highly complex conflict involving multiple actors are clear.

“What’s changed is an increased sense of urgency on behalf of the EU for dealing with a massive influx of refugees,” Seçkin pointed out.

“The stakes for the EU are very high…and this is the reason why they are willing to provide such expensive concessions to the Turks in these negotiations.”

Given Turkey’s military objectives and the slim chances of making the area truly safe, Frelick described the EU’s willingness “to either collaborate in the creation of such a zone or to give a free pass to Turkey… as really quite worrying”.

Referring to the wording of Monday’s statement, he commented that “simply to make the area ‘more safe’ is not a very high bar”.

“If barrel bombs are still going to be falling on people, how on earth do you even contemplate what is going to be ‘more safe’?” he asked.


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