President Obama is at odds with his former secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, over her proposed refugee “safe zone” in Syria. Her idea might seem like a no-brainer: create a safe place for refugees in Syria, and they won’t need to flee to Europe or the U.S. But safe zones have a poor record of success, and establishing one in Syria is strategically unrealistic. They will simply not obviate the necessity for the U.S. and Europe to accept Syrian refugees.
The biggest problem with the proposal to create a new safe zone is that the region already has several de facto safe zones. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan house, combined, nearly 4 million refugees — some in refugee camps, but mainly in cities. Yet simply protecting Syrians from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Syrian President Bashar Assad is not enough. Syrians need jobs, education, medical care and the opportunity to lead peaceful lives.
According to the U.N., “appalling living conditions” in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have prompted Syrian refugees to abandon these “safe” areas for Europe. “There is no money, no electricity, no water,” one refugee in Greece told Vice last this week. “My daughter got sick in Lebanon because of the huge piles of uncollected trash.” In Turkey and Lebanon, most refugeesare working illegally, which is also an untenable situation.
For these reasons and others, more than 300,000 refugees have come into Europe through Greece this year alone. If safe zones don’t work in countries where the threat of violence is small and jobs are at least theoretically available, they’re surely not going to work in areas where daily violence remains a real risk and employment is out of the question.
In any case, the goal of establishing genuine “safety” in Syria faces its own hurdles. It would require the U.S. to halt the advance of ISIS, while simultaneously preventing Assad from barrel-bombing rebel-controlled areas. If the U.S. could easily accomplish these goals, the war would arguably be over already.
The reality is that after more than a year of assaults by Assad, the Americans, the Russians, the French, and the British, the territory controlled by ISIS in Syria and Iraq has changed little. And despite international pressure, few allies and a country of crumbling, bombed-out cities, Assad continues to see brutal military tactics as the best way to cling to power.
Unanswered questions abound. If ISIS violates the safe zone, is the U.S. really prepared to put boots on the ground, over the objections of Assad and the Russians, simply to protect a small patch of Syrian soil? Does it make sense to imperil American lives and risk stumbling into a much bigger conflict in order to achieve such a limited goal?
The Obama administration had these sorts of considerations in mind when it rejected a safe zone for Syria. There is no U.S.-friendly rebel force capable of controlling the territory. And the White House is wisely wary of enforcing such a zone against Assad and Russia.
The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees also opposes safe zones as a solution for refugees, citing their poor track record. In 1993, the U.N. designated the Bosnian city of Srebrenica as a safe zone for Muslim Bosniaks. The city drew in thousands of refugees, but the Serb army cut off supplies, starving the population. With few U.N. troops to protect it, it ultimately became the target for attacks, resulting in a wave of ethnic cleansing that killed 8,000 Bosniaks.
French safe zones in Rwanda in 1995 did nothing to stop millions of refugees from flooding into Zaire, but did delay the defeat of the genocidal government and allow war criminals to escape the country. When the French withdrew, the rebels overran the area, committing new atrocitiesand creating a new exodus of refugees.
Safe zones are not a viable solution to the refugee crisis. Until the civil war ends, refugees will continue to risk death to flee to Europe, and the U.S. should still accept some of them. Shutting out refugees whom ISIS condemns as traitors would play into its propaganda and leave Syrians stranded in the sort of desperation proven to breed radicalization. If the U.S. drives refugees back to Assad, we will turn allies into enemies and lose this conflict.
Syrians do need safety, and American citizens should be able to freely choose to provide that safety in our homes. No matter whether Hillary Clinton attempts to implement her proposal or not, those homes will still be the best safe zones that Syrians will find.