U.N. Debate

09.01.12

A Safe Haven Inside Syria? Bad Idea

Flooded with refugees, Turkey has asked the U.N. to set up a shelter inside Syria’s borders. Christopher Dickey on the strategy’s disappointing and dangerous record.

On Thursday, the Turks pleaded before the U.N. Security Council for support to establish a safe haven inside Syria where refugees might take shelter from the bombs and tanks of the savage Assad dictatorship.

Sounds reasonable, no? And humanitarian, for sure. But it’s not. When the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, claimed the initiative is essentially part of a strategy “promoting imminent military intervention under humanitarian pretexts,” he was just stating the obvious. And for just that reason, when it comes to safe havens, there is nothing safe about them. They generally offer poor shelter, and often give probable cause for escalating violence.

There’s no question the tide of refugees trying to escape the Syrian civil war is at the flood stage. According to the latest U.N. statistics some 230,000 have fled in all directions and sought to register as refugees. Many wind up with family or friends in Lebanon, others in a new camp—or perhaps inferno is a better word—in Jordan’s desert. About 80,000 have gone to Turkey so far, and Turkey says it just can’t handle more than 100,000, a threshold that could be crossed in a matter of days.  

“How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and mass targeting?” demanded Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu when he spoke to the Security Council. But of course that begged the question: If humanitarian motives are the main concern, why doesn’t Turkey just make room for more Syrians? Ankara is allowing the rebels to operate out of rear bases in Turkey, yet recently closed its borders to civilians who wanted to cross. Its long-term priority, understandably, is to bring Assad down, then send the refugees home. But safe havens would accomplish neither goal.

António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told the Security Council that people fleeing violence must be allowed to seek shelter and protection outside their own countries. “This is a right that must not be jeopardized, for instance, through the establishment of so-called safe havens or other similar arrangements,” said Guterres. “Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas.”

Guterres didn’t get into specifics, but one obvious example was Srebrenica in Bosnia, a “safe haven” that U.N. troops could not defend and eventually surrendered to the Serbs, who massacred every able-bodied man and boy they could find there in July 1995.  

Even among the powers calling for Assad’s overthrow, there’s no real will to intervene militarily. Every “urgent”  conference on Syria, including this latest session of the Security Council, is an orgy of buck passing and finger pointing. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked last month about setting up a working group to study the creation of a no-fly zone and related options. But one unnamed intelligence official told James Traub, writing on the Foreign Policy site: “No serious military planning for a no-fly zone was currently underway.”

The most relevant precedent is not Libya last year, but Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991.

So what we’ve got is a Turkish effort to talk a safe haven into existence in international meetings, while Turkish action—or inaction—on the ground forces the international community to do something decisive in the face of the Assad regime’s atrocities. At best this is a cynical use of refugees as geopolitical pawns, at worst it’s a kind of humanitarian blackmail. But you can see why the Turks might want to try such a tactic.

The most relevant precedent is not Libya last year, but Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. Then, hundreds of thousands of refugees tried to flee Saddam Hussein’s retribution against their popular uprising. He had used poison gas against them in the past, and they feared he would again. But Turkish troops stopped these panic-stricken civilians at the Turkish border. As Kurdish men, women and children—especially children—froze to death on the mountainsides, the international community was spurred into action, establishing a no-fly zone and threatening greater action until Saddam cut a deal to withdraw his forces from the region. With American, French, and British planes patrolling above, an enormous safe haven came into being a dozen years before the regime in Baghdad fell.  

But the key to all this, as I saw on the ground at the time, was coordination between the two major Kurdish warlords. They’d been rivals for years, but once they joined forces, they were effective at protecting their home turf. Their peshmerga militias already were seasoned, indeed legendary, fighters. The CIA actively worked with the leadership, while U.S. Special Forces moved in to help organize and train the Kurdish troops to coordinate with allied forces. A brilliant American operative named Fred Cuny, employed by the State Department, pulled together the combined military, political, and emergency assistance measures in a matter of weeks. And the whole package worked (somewhat to my surprise). The refugees came down off the mountains, and Saddam was badly weakened even if he was not defeated. 

By contrast, another no-fly zone over the Shia areas in southern Iraq was ineffectual, and did little to protect the locals. The George H. W. Bush administration was concerned about Iranians exploiting it for their own ends. And the flat terrain was an easy battleground for Saddam’s armored units. 

And, oh, by the way, those Iraq no-fly zones were established after Saddam’s military had been crushed in the conventional warfare of Desert Storm during the liberation of Kuwait. In Syria, Assad’s army has not been crushed. Far from it. 

The other critical difference is that, at the time, what the French called the “right to interfere” looked like it might emerge as a new guiding principle for Western policy. Humanitarian concerns were supposed to take precedence over respect for sovereign borders and recognized governments if those regimes brutalized their subjects. But that principle never really did work out in practice. Hundreds of thousands of people died in Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda in the 1990s, when humanitarian intervention proved ineffectual, too late, or nonexistent. In the last decade, the George W. Bush administration cited the way the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes treated their own people as partial justification for launching its two grinding occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, thus further discrediting the notion that doing good justifies waging war. 

Such, sadly, is the history of “humanitarian pretexts.”