President Trump has said he will “absolutely do safe zones in Syria” to stem the flow of refugees into other countries. It remains unclear what specific measures he will authorize, but there is now the possibility for a policy which can save many lives.

The manifest dreadfulness of the Syrian crisis requires the International Community to look at options to invest in Syria which does not include the drain of its brightest and best to countries around the world, thus condemning Syria to terminal and irreversible decline.  The ceasefire brokered in Astana last week offers hope for millions.

The Humanitarian Safe Zone (HSZ) concept recognises that rehoming plus of 5 million refugees is not a long-term option and if nothing is demonstratively done to reverse the outflow from Syria, this could grow by another 7 million currently displaced in Syria.  Safe Zones could be the catalyst to reconstruct this devastated land and get meaningful amounts of aid in quickly.

The HSZ concept recognises that the vast majority of Syrians want to remain in, or return to, Syria if it is free of tyranny and the terror of ISIL.  President Trump’s support for Safe Zones could be key to getting Russia and Iran to also sign up to this approach.  Russia, not unexpectedly suggests caution but does not dismiss the idea.

A ‘Pilot’ scheme in NW Syria is achievable, and I believe the best way to get this process underway.

A pilot Safe Zone in NW Syria, could be bounded by a line from Kilis in the North, to Aleppo, south to Idlib and around to Ryhanli. Conditions must be created to enable refugees to return and begin the prospect of some sort of civilised future for Syria.  The aim is to restore hope to the Syrian people many of whom are taking great risks to flee their country hoping for a better future, most especially in Europe.

This pilot scheme could be seen as a bridgehead for Syrians to re-occupy their country as the viable alternative.  If successful, the concept can be replicated in the south on the Jordanian border and beyond.  At the same time, the global fight against ISIL can begin in earnest in Syria with US, UK, Turkey, Russia and all allies working together, with the Safe Zone expanded into areas when liberated from ISIL.

This suggested area is currently free of ISIL and Regime troops and some way from Russian key locations in Syria, Latakia and Tartus.  It is an area of about 1500 sq Kms with no known strategic interest to Russia.  It is predominantly controlled by Free Syrian Army and moderate groups.  There are about 500,000 refugees in camps on the Syrian side of the border living in abject conditions.

Food, water and electricity could flow in from the many NGOs situated over the border in Turkey and the refugee camps could be expanded.  UK charity Syria Relief runs some of the very few functioning schools, but still a generation of children are completely missing their education. This could be reversed. International medical charity UOSSM, run a number of very effective hospitals and clinics in the area, and are preparing to up this effort if the Safe Zone materialises.  Our main hospital at Bab Al Hawa just over the Turkish border near Ryhanli has treated many of the most challenging cases from East Aleppo and continues to do so, but is short of some critical medicines and equipment.

Safety and security is the underlying and critical requirement for the Safe Zone.  The Regime must stop dropping barrel bombs indiscriminately on civilians which is the main reason they continue to leave Syria.  There are still many deaths a week caused by barrel bombs and places like Wadi Barada and East Ghouta are still under attack even with the ceasefire in place.  Assad continues to drop chlorine (chemical) barrel bombs which are perceived as the greatest terror on the ground…..‘We can hide from bombs and bullets but not gas……….’

President Trump has stated that he would not have allowed the Redline on the use of chemical weapons to disintegrate in the way it did, and I, for one, am hopeful that he will soon state that the Redline is very much back in play.  Security of the Safe Zone in this area could be supported by naval ships in the Eastern Mediterranean with radar and missiles.  This would negate the need for coalition aircraft to fly in ‘Syrian & Russian’ air space which is guarded by effective anti-aircraft assets.

Security on the ground should be policed by UN monitors, and they have proved effective in East Aleppo.  They could be supported by moderate militias already operating in the area and experts from Coalition, and ideally Turkish/NATO/UN troops on the ground.

There is going to be a huge challenge to get aid in through just the two crossings at Ryhanli and Kilis on a pretty poor road infrastructure, but with co-ordination and energy, I gauge this is achievable.  Accommodation, ideally prefabricated, initially at least, needs to be rapidly provided and to allow expansion of refugee camps, build homes, schools, roads, bridges, electricity infrastructure et al.

Nobody is under any illusion of the challenges ahead for Safe Zones in Syria.  It will require Turkish, Russian, Iranian, US, UK and UN support and agreement.  Significant resources are required for success, but less than housing 5-12 million Syrians elsewhere and allowing the terminal decline of this once great nation.

So there is just a glimpse of a silver lining for Syria in these most troubled times; let’s hope those who currently influence world events do not miss this fleeting opportunity to save Syria and actually do some good for the moral benefit of us all.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, Director Doctors Under Fire, advisor to UOSSM

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