An Iraqi-Kurdish precedent for proposed Syrian 'safe zones'?

An Iraqi-Kurdish precedent for proposed Syrian 'safe zones'?
4 min read
14 February, 2017
Analysis: As the proposal of safe zones inside Syria gains traction, Iraq's Kurdistan may provide one such model - though likely to be opposed by Assad and the opposition alike.
Safe zones could be established along Syria's border with Turkey [AFP]

In light of President Donald Trump's plan to establish "safe havens" for Syrian refugees within their own country's borders there has been discussion and speculation centred around what such zones might look like - and where exactly they might be located.

Some have pointed out, citing the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia as a precedent, that safe zones could necessitate as many as 30,000 troops to protect the Syrian civilians seeking sanctuary inside them.

Operation Provide Comfort saw the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan and the delivery of humanitarian aid to its displaced inhabitants in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Its aim was to prevent Saddam Hussein from launching another genocidal onslaught on the Kurdish people - and has been cited as a precedent which could be emulated in Syria.

OPC was most recently cited in this context by one of its participants, US General James L Jones, then a colonel, who says the United States and its allies should explore the feasibility of a similar operation for Syria - pointing out that Iraqi Kurds "have not forgotten" that the operation helped foster the growth of the autonomous region there today.

That said, any effort which may encourage the potential partitioning of Syria into even quasi-autonomous regions would be vehemently opposed by both President Assad in Damascus and the political opposition in exile.

But Jones argues that displaced Syrians can be sheltered and protected in a "no fly/safe zone" nonetheless.

Russia's presence in the region has complicated matters significantly

"Just as the Kurds of today have not forgotten the benefits of that intervention, the Syrians of today will long remember that we failed them in their hour of similar need," Jones concludes.

"But maybe, just maybe, it's still not too late."

He also briefly refers to the obstacle posed by the Russian military presence in Syria: "Russia's presence in the region has complicated matters significantly."

While the Trump administration has yet to determine where exactly such safe zones might be, it's clear that at least one or two safe havens might be established along Syria's lengthy northern frontier with Turkey, one-third of which is controlled by Ankara and the other two-thirds by Ankara's rival - the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

Turkey has long sought a safe zone in that area.

It's unlikely a no-fly/safe zone could be established anywhere in Syria... without the consent of the Russians

It's unlikely a no-fly/safe zone could be established anywhere in Syria, especially if it comes along with a sizable number of ground forces, without the consent of the Russians.

The closest thing the participating western powers and Turkey could get to a no-fly zone is some agreement with Moscow that could see them agree to pressure Assad to ground the Syrian Air Force. A unilateral establishment of a no-fly zone could result in a clash with the Syrian regime backed by Russia.

In 1991, Saddam Hussein was an isolated tyrant, the United Nations condemned his annexation of Kuwait and voted in favour of his expulsion.

After the war, Moscow was not going to stick its neck out for their former client, while Saddam's military power had been severely degraded - and he knew his forces could do little to disrupt OPC without breaking the ceasefire and bringing forceful retribution on his regime.

Nevertheless, OPC was never supported by a large contingent of combat troops inside Kurdistan itself. Any third-party-enforced safe haven in Syria, however, will doubtlessly require such support - given the presence of rampaging militant groups such as IS.

At present, the failure of the western powers to militarily confront Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in recent years gave Moscow a chance to intervene decisively to preserve their interests in Syria.

Any major military intervention in Syria by the western powers to establish any safe zone will therefore have to negotiated with the Russians, who, unlike Saddam's Iraq back in 1991, are not a broken-backed power decisively hammered by western militaries.

Turkey was sure to patch up its relations with Russia after the Russian jet-fighter incident in November 2015, before it launched its ongoing Euphrates Shield operation in northwest Syria. Now both sides are reportedly coordinating their airstrikes in Syria against Islamic State group militants.

Had these same powers bombed the Syrian regime in 2012-13 they might have been able to set up a more Provide Comfort-like operation in Syria. It may already be too late for such a zone in Syria, as Jones concedes.

He may well be correct at this late stage in this bloody war. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon