Back to basics: protection of civilians in Syria begins where the air sovereignty of the regime ends

USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70)_150310-N-TP834-172
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USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70)_150310-N-TP834-172

The debate on Turkey and ISIS is missing an important component: the Syrian civil population. In order to protect civilians, Assad needs to be stopped.

The more devastating the conflict in Syria becomes, the less the West seems to care. From the point in time the “Islamic State” proclaimed its “caliphate” all concern has been directed towards the extremist threat. The fact that Bashar al-Assad is reducing his country to rubble - in the slipstream of terrorists - has become marginal.

Together with the attack on the Turkish border town of Suruç on July 20, which has been attributed to ISIS and which claimed the lives of 32 people, Turkish air strikes and the ghastly international debate demonstrate who plays the most marginal role from the perspective of both the Turkish and the American government: the Syrian civil population.

Shortly after the attack, the Turkish government announced it had agreed on the establishment of a protection zone in the North of Syria with the US. At first, this sounded like a positive development, considering a war that is killing and displacing as many civilians as few others have. However, the maps outlining the planned zone were sobering: the zone along the Turkish border was envisaged to be around 100 kilometres long and 35 kilometres wide. That would have excluded Aleppo and any other larger city in Syria. Even for Turkey, that had been demanding a no-fly zone for years, the definition of a “safe zone” was developed solely with the areas of northern Syria last controlled by ISIS in mind, not in consideration of where the threat for the population is greatest.

Civilians in this part of the country paradoxically would be threatened even more by the implementation of the scheme than they would be safeguarded by it. As long as ISIS controls an area, the Syrian air force executes sporadic attacks at most.

However, even the Turkish marginal version of a protection zone was seemingly a lot more than what had actually been agreed on with Washington. As soon as Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu spoke of protective measures for civilians, even of the possibility for refugees to return, the US exercised itself in its supreme discipline and proven strategy in their involvement in Syria: it backtracked.

No involvement of Kurdish forces

The goal was neither a zone nor the protection of civilians, but exclusively the air bombardment of the region. ISIS is to be banished, but the definition of a zone already implies a responsibility to protect – and that is something Barack Obama’s government is not willing to assume.

The rest is to be carried out by ground troops – which neither the US nor Turkey are intending to commit. That is to be the responsibility of Syrian rebels. However, there is not much choice: The involvement of Kurdish forces is out of the question from Turkey’s point of view, even though these seem to be the best organised.

The desired candidates in the eyes of the US are Syrian rebels, which they claim have been handpicked and trained. However, after Washington consistently failed those it had promised help, the programme has shrunk to a homeopathic dose: Merely 54 fighters of the 5000 that had been announced for this year completed the training programme. And of these, a third, together with their leader, was recently abducted by the al-Nusra Front.

A carte blanche for the dictator

In the eyes of many Syrians, Assad and ISIS are equally fatal threats. Even to eliminate just one of these would mean an improvement. However, sight is oftentimes lost of the fact that the two cannot be fought separately.

A western policy that merely targets ISIS – while Assad is responsible for the far higher number of casualties – achieves the opposite of its goal: It assists ISIS in recruiting new fighters because it leads Syrians to realize that the West is neither interested in human rights, nor in democracy – but solely concerned with those enemies that could be of danger to the West itself. That is why even a supposedly secular dictator is served with a carte blanche, as long as he claims to take action against jihadists.

Syrian activists have been demanding a no-fly zone for years, as Assad’s air force obliterates entire housing blocks with barrel bombs and does not shy away from the deployment of internationally ostracized weapons such as cluster and fire bombs and chlorine containers.

Indeed, the UN Security Council, inclusive of Russia and China, has adopted a resolution against the use of barrel bombs and another against the deployment of chlorine gas. However, it is illusory to believe these resolutions will actually be implemented. The establishment of a no-fly zone would fundamentally improve the situation of civilians in Syria, but the decision would certainly fall through in the Security Council, due to at least the Russian veto. Thus, Assad’s air forces are permitted to continue reducing the country to rubble.

Buffer zone out of self-interest

The comments from Washington demonstrate that not even a meagre “safe zone” stands a chance. Furthermore, we should be clear on the fact that a “buffer zone”, as has now been proposed by Turkey, would not be owed to humanitarian considerations alone. The neighbouring states are concerned with preventing the fights from encroaching on their own territories. In addition: If there were to be such a zone, it would facilitate keeping refugees at bay and maybe even sending some of them back to Syria.

Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil has cast his eye on the erection of refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border, in order to relieve the pressure on Lebanon. However, without the guarantee to defend these against the Syrian regime and other forces if necessary, those seeking refuge would be abandoned to their own fate.

The only feat that has been achieved in Syria is the establishment of ISIS-free zones, created through the rebels themselves. They succeeded in repelling the terror militia. To enable a permanent defence of these regions and to allow for reconstruction, regime-led air strikes must be ceased. Anything else will perpetuate the war.


Transltated by Christine F.G. Kollmar