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Syria: Will Humanitarian “Safe Areas” Work?

December 5, 2016


Beth Do

Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan, a home for Syrian refugees. Photo Credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development

Beth Do, a student in the Master’s in Applied International Studies program at the Jackson School, writes about a recent public event hosted by The Middle East Center.

Can we make humanitarian safe areas work in Syria and elsewhere? This was the question presented to panelists discussing “Humanitarian Options in Syria” on November 21 in Room 317 Thomson Hall at the Jackson School.

The Syrian crisis in numbers. Photo Credit: Beth Do

The Syrian crisis in numbers. Photo Credit: Beth Do

Over 70 students, faculty and community members attended the discussion about one of the worst civil war crises in recent times.

Professor Rick Lorenz, a Jackson School senior lecturer and retired U.S. Marine officer and Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Owen Ray, an Army War College Fellow with combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, reviewed the political, legal and military ramifications on safe areas.

Professor Lorenz began his talk with the definition of safe areas, a term not well understood even at higher political levels. Safe areas or safety zones is an unofficial term covering a wide variety of attempts to declare certain areas off-limits for military targeting.

Lorenz summarized the history of no-fly zones and safe areas, drawing from conflicts in Srebrenica, Rwanda, Iraq and Libya. He spoke about the high expectations of safety and stability once safe areas are established.

LTC Ray explained some of the challenges, particularly the lack of logistical understanding in establishing these areas which makes the task difficult and convoluted.

The situation in Syria is complex due to the web of political alliances resulting proxy warfare and human rights violations, they both noted. They emphasized it will take explicit political will and increased funding to resolve the Syrian Civil War.

According to LTC Ray: “There is a big package required … and media does not get into second-level logistics.”

Moreover, a domestic charge to finance aircraft refuelers and additional forces is currently not enough. Policy overtures to Turkey, Russia and other key regional players are crucial but will require deft diplomacy, said LTC Ray.

Current attempts are hampered by the possibility of failure. Both panelists ruefully admitted that military support can exacerbate a situation and sometimes lead to an escalation of conflict. However, the fear of failure should not be the reason for the U.S. to refrain from taking action.

Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Owen Ray reviewing "safe areas". Photo Credit: Beth Do

Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Owen Ray reviewing “safe areas”. Photo Credit: Beth Do