After months of public demonstrations and brutal regime-directed violence, Syria appears to be slipping into an all-out insurrection. Anti-government forces have been able to seize pockets of territory and launch raids into Damascus. It may only be a matter of time before, as in Libya, clear front lines emerge and fighting escalates from an insurgency into fully-fledged civil war.
Any such escalation would almost certainly involve a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Thousands of refugees have already left Syria (itself home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Palestinians). There are nearly 10,000 Syrians being sheltered in camps in Turkey. If the conflict intensifies, the number could jump exponentially: up to a million fled Libya earlier this year.
Faced with this potential crisis, regional leaders and European policy-makers seem to be edging toward proposals for some sort of humanitarian intervention. While Chinese and Russian diplomats darkly hint that NATO wants to launch another war, Western leaders have little stomach for a Libyan-style air campaign. European air forces need a break after their longer-than-expected operations over Libya, and the Syrian military still has considerable firepower.
Instead, the hunt is on for ways to offer security and aid to civilians inside Syria and on its borders. Rather than air power, this could involve some sort of international presence on the ground. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned this week that "not only Turkey but the international community" might have to create a buffer zone along the Syrian border if refugee flows reach tens or hundreds of thousands. He kept this idea vague, but has underlined Turkey must be ready for all scenarios. Last week Davutoglu’s French counterpart Alain Juppé used a radio interview to moot the creation of humanitarian corridors to funnel food and medical supplies into Syria, possibly accompanied by international observers with a U.N. mandate.
Like Davutoglu, Juppé insists he is opposed to any larger-scale military intervention in Syria. In the near-term, both ministers must be aware that the chances of any humanitarian intervention in Syria anyway remain low. Damascus is not going to approve an outside presence on its territory. Anti-regime elements have stated their enthusiasm for a Turkish buffer zone (presumably a good place for them to train as well as welcome refuges) making any sort of "impartial" intervention well-nigh impossible. And China and Russia — having vetoed an exceptionally mild U.N. resolution against Syria last month — are unlikely to let the Security Council endorse any sort of deployment.
U.N. aid officials also insist that, for now, neither a buffer zone nor humanitarian corridors are necessary. Yet if fighting spreads and refugee numbers spike, there will be calls for Turkey, the Arab League, and European powers to make good on these proposals. Humanitarian workers are likely to continue to resist the militarization of their efforts, just as the U.N. turned down EU offers of military help to get aid to Libya this spring. But in the advent of an acute crisis, there will be a temptation to send in "peacekeepers", just as soldiers were sent to Bosnia or Darfur.
Would a military-humanitarian operation of this type, whether mounted by Arab or Western forces, work? The risk of the mission backfiring is high. The current talk of humanitarian corridors and safe areas is all too reminiscent of the initial response to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. European troops under U.N. command were mandated to ensure the "unimpeded delivery of humanitarian supplies" amid the chaos of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But concerns for these forces’ safety impeded the West’s ability to put pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to end the war, while Bosnian cities including Sarajevo remained trapped in a state of siege.
The flaws in the U.N.’s strategy were exacerbated when the Security Council instructed the peacekeepers to patrol six so-called "safe areas" in Bosnia without clear instructions on how to defend them. In 1995, Bosnian Serb forces overran one of those safe areas — Srebrenica — capturing Dutch soldiers and massacring 8,000 men and boys. In spite of this catastrophe, proposals for humanitarian corridors and safe areas have surfaced in other crises.
Today’s U.N. mission in Darfur is mainly concerned with guarding aid convoys and displaced persons’ camps. Yet the Darfur case underlines the problems with such humanitarian operations. Although the mission involves 25,000 personnel, their vulnerability to attacks by bandits and interference by Sudanese forces has led some to conclude the peacekeepers are effectively hostages themselves.
Would a humanitarian operation in Syria fare any better, even if the situation there deteriorates to the point that the anti-interventionists in Beijing and Moscow back down? A few factors are positive: Syria is at least smaller and far less remote than Darfur. But it is hard to see how any outside force, whatever its make-up and mandate, could avoid being targeted by one side or other in the evolving conflict. The U.N. force in Lebanon has lost personnel to terrorist attacks, even though these have been smaller than the attacks on U.S. and French troops in Beirut in the 1980s.
So even if outside forces were to deploy to protect humanitarian corridors, buffer zones or safe areas in Syria with the best intentions, they could soon be dragged into fighting or forced to exit. The need to keep international personnel safe could also be an obstacle to mediating a peace deal.
These concerns would not apply so strongly to a buffer zone in north Syria under Turkish protection — as the Turks have shown in Iraq, they are capable of projecting force in such cases. Nonetheless, while talk of a humanitarian intervention in Syria may be comforting in the short term, it is deceptively dangerous. Arab, European, and Turkish planners should be ready for all eventualities. If Syria sinks into war, peacekeepers may be required to stabilize it later. But "humanitarian corridors" and "safe areas" are not a strategy to prevent that war escalating now.
Richard Gowan is an Associate Director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.