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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Syria 'safe zones' - why they are unlikely to work

Crux, a Catholic news site, has become the latest commentator to call for the creation of ‘safe zones’ in Syria, which Syrian people currently in Lebanon could be returned to.

This idea has been raised on a number of occasions, and even if we ignore Crux’s major argument (which is that the 1.5m Syrian refugees in Lebanon significantly reduces the percentage of the population which is Christian) and accept its second (and reasonable) one – that Lebanon’s infrastructure is struggling to cope with 25 per cent increase in its population – there are some significant problems with the idea.

The first is that Assad does not want there to be ‘safe zones’. He wants there to be no place in which opponents to his rule are in the majority, and to attack any areas where such a majority does exist.

This leads to the second – that any such ‘zone’ would be extremely vulnerable to attack by Assad (not to mention the dozens of other militias who support him and many which oppose him) and would require strong and ongoing ground defences.

These would be extraordinarily expensive (though of course we should not allow ourselves to imagine keeping people safe as ‘too expensive’) but more to the point Assad does not allow aid organisations access to large parts of Syria, so the idea that he would allow a UN force to defend Syrian people from attack is wildly unlikely.

Finally, there is no such thing as an effective air defence, except for having your own aircraft and missiles used to ‘intercept’ and ‘ground’ those of an attacker. Effectively, then, these ‘safe zones’ would each require their own air force – well-equipped enough to withstand assault by the Russian air force, which is the world’s second largest and second most advanced – and people to fly the aircraft, and staff the missile systems.

Effectively, Crux and others appear to be calling for the setting up of independent states inside Syria, both surrounded entirely by enemy fighters and with either an international military, or each one with its own extremely strong and well-equipped military force.

Even if Assad were to agree to such a thing – and there is no reason on Earth to expect that he would – the expense and logistical issues, including what could be done should a ‘safe zone’ choose to use its extremely advanced and expensive military to, for example, make a ‘pre-emptive’ strike on an enemy, or launch an attack on Damascus, which would in itself cause yet more internal displacement and people movement, make the idea effectively unworkable, and in many ways undesirable.

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