Are Safe Areas a Viable Way Out of the Humanitarian Deadlock in Syria?

In recent days, media sources have reported pressing calls by Turkey for the creation of safe havens or buffer zones on Syrian territory that would provide urgently needed protection and assistance to civilians fleeing the increasingly deadly conflict and would allow for an ever growing number of refugees. These calls were echoed by France, which, as president of the United Nations Security Council for the month of August, is convening a high-level meeting of the Security Council today (August 30) to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria.

While the idea of safe havens in Syria is not new—Turkey and others were already calling for humanitarian corridors or buffer zones in February 2012—developments on the ground make them even more compelling. The intensity of the fighting has been mounting in the last few months, particularly since the cities of Damascus and Aleppo became embroiled in the conflict, with its cortege of death and displacement. Consequently, the number of people seeking refuge in neighboring countries—particularly in Turkey, whose borders are just 30 miles from Aleppo—has soared from a few hundred refugees a day a few months ago to up to 5,000 in recent days. Turkey, which is already hosting approximately 80,000 refugees, even warned that it would not be in a position to shelter more than 100,000 Syrians on its territory, although this figure was just reevaluated to be 120,000.

Given these developments, it is time to reflect on the feasibility of establishing such protected areas in light of both international law and the international community’s experience.

Key Conclusions

International humanitarian law allows the establishment of different types of protected areas under conditions of consent of the warring parties and demilitarization of the area concerned. However, the Security Council, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, has the power  to impose the creation of safe havens even without the consent of the parties.

Experience indicates that, absent consent and demilitarization of the zone, safe areas established through a Security Council decision require enforcement by outside military actors committed to using force and deploying the necessary means to secure the area. A brief review of existing options and past practice shows that options for establishing a viable and enforceable safe haven in Syria are limited, especially considering the lack of agreement within the Security Council, the expected lack of consent of the Syrian government, and the practical difficulties of enforcing the demilitarization of safe zones. Rather than achieving the goal of protecting civilians, imposing safe havens might contribute to escalating the conflict by drawing outside military forces into the Syrian conflict.


The legal basis for the establishment of areas that would provide protection to the civilian population and allow the unrestricted delivery of humanitarian aid in the midst of conflict can be found in international humanitarian law (IHL)—also known as the law of armed conflict—and in the United Nations Charter.

The concept of “safe havens” per se does not exist in international humanitarian law. IHL does, however, provide different possibilities to parties to a conflict to designate areas that should be immune from hostilities. The 1949 Geneva Conventions envisioned the possibility of creating “hospital and safety zones and localities” of a relatively permanent nature and geographically remote from the theatre of conflict, and neutralized zones of a temporary nature that can be established close to the area of conflict. Both these protected areas are, however, limited to the most vulnerable categories of the population, such as children, the elderly, and pregnant women. The 1977 First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions opened up another possibility, namely the creation of the concept of demilitarized zones, open to the broader civilian population. These different options—considered part of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflict—all require the consent of the warring factions and the complete demilitarization of the area, including abstaining from any activities contributing to the war efforts such as weapon production or troop movements.

Beyond international humanitarian law, and in the absence of consent by one or several of the parties to the conflict, the only possibility to legally establish some form of protected area is through a binding decision of the UN Security Council acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to protect international peace and security.

In practice, safe areas were created in a number of conflicts during the second half of the twentieth century. Early examples of neutralized or safety zones based on international humanitarian law—such as those in the Bangladesh war in 1971, in Cyprus in 1974, in Nicaragua in 1979, and in Chad in 1980—proved relatively successful in that they provided a modicum of protection to some categories of the civilian population. In all cases, however, these protected areas were limited in size to a few buildings such as hospitals, hotels, or churches, and limited in time to the duration of active hostilities in the area concerned.

It was not until the 1990s that more ambitious attempts at creating larger geographic areas were imposed by the UN Security Council based on its coercive powers under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, without the consent of all the belligerent parties. Examples include the coalition-enforced “safe havens” in northern Iraq in 1991, the six UN-declared “safe areas” in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1993 and 1995, and the “secure humanitarian areas” enforced by the UN-authorized and French-led Operation Turquoise in Rwanda in 1994. Although these later attempts at enforcing some protected areas undoubtedly contributed to saving some lives, their success is far from being absolute as illustrated by the 1995 massacres of Srebrenica, one of the “safe areas” established in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and of Kibeho, one of the camps established in the “safe humanitarian area” in Rwanda.

What this quick overview of the legal bases and the practice of establishing safe havens tells us is that the most effective way to maintain the integrity of a protected area is to secure the consent of the parties and to ensure that the zone is not used for any kind of military activities or activities that would contribute to the war efforts. Indeed, one element that led to the fall of Srebrenica, beyond the will of the Bosnian Serb forces to ethnically cleanse the area, was that Bosnian Muslim forces operated within and from the area, with the blessing of the UN Security Council. This gave a handy excuse to Bosnian Serb forces to enter the area and commit their crimes.

In the case of Syria, the government recently rebuffed the very idea of safe havens or buffer zones on its territory. Without such consent, safe havens could only be imposed by force, ideally with a mandate of the Security Council that is all the more unlikely given the current political dynamics in this body. Moreover, experience shows that imposing respect for protected zones is no easy endeavor. It requires commitment from outside actors, ready to use force and open the trap of the militarization of aid, which was already discussed in these columns.

Even if the Assad regime could be convinced to agree to the establishment of safe havens—an objective that might be within reach of Russia’s and China’s diplomacy—an absolute prerequisite would be to ensure that the various Syrian rebel groups effectively abstain from conducting any sort of military activities within or from the designated areas. Given the nature of the insurgent movement, combining civilians who have taken up arms and defectors from the army, absolute compliance to the latter requirement appears highly unlikely, and the chances that the Syrian army would continue to attack the areas concerned would remain high.

Down the road, it is highly uncertain that consent will be given by the Syrian government or that consensus will be found within the Security Council. This leaves open a third possibility: intervention by third-party countries to enforce a safe haven without Security Council authorization, which would undoubtedly result in confrontations with the Syrian army and further escalation of the conflict.

Jérémie Labbé is a Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.
About the Photo: Syrian refugees reside in Reyhanli refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border, March 15, 2012: see more photos here.