On 4 May 2017, Russia brokered a deal with Iran and Turkey to create four “de-escalation” zones in Syria, an agreement Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said would pave the way “for the safe, voluntary return of refugees” after six years of civil war.
The agreement drew swift opposition and skepticism from Syrian rebels, who now control the four areas designated as safe zones. The rebels vowed never to accept any plan sponsored by Iran, a key ally of President Bashar Assad. The rebels further questioned why a truce would take effect only in the four zones instead of throughout all of war-ravaged Syria.
For its part, the U.S. seems to be taking a wait-and-see attitude on what the safe zones might accomplish. “All wars eventually come to an end and we’ve been looking for a long time how to bring this one to an end,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on 8 May 2017. “So we’ll look at the proposal and see if it can work.”
Mattis noted that basic details were still unclear, including who would enforce safety inside the zones and who exactly would be kept out. The Trump administration also echoed the Syrian rebels’ objections over Iran’s involvement as a “guarantor state.” The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying that “Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.” The priority for the Trump administration, however, seems focused more on preventing displaced people from leaving Syria as refugees than on the civilians’ long-term safety.
The boundaries for the four safe zones were drawn after four rounds of talks held since January 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan: Idlib province, with parts of neighboring Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces; northern parts of Homs province; eastern parts of the city of Ghouta; and parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria.
Although Syria backed the safe zones, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on 8 May 2017 that the Assad regime will not accept the presence of the United Nations or other “international forces” on the ground. Instead, troops from Russia, Iran and Turkey are expected to enforce security within the safe zones.
The absence of international observers could pose problems in ensuring the wellbeing of returning Syrian refugees. More than one million displaced Syrians are living in neighboring Lebanon, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Lebanese government has called for more of the huge influx of Syrian refugees to be repatriated, though it does not support forced returns.
A petition to the U.S. government featured on Change.org urging Syrians in Lebanon to be sent back home to safe zones gathered more than 20,000 signatures. Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and pro-Assad militia fighting in Syria, declared that it was looking to establish a safe zone in the Qalamoun region close to the Lebanese border, in concert with the Syrian regime.
Reacting to the petition, Joey Ayoub, a Lebanese blogger and regional editor at Global Voices, condemned the safe-zones concept. “There is no such thing as safe zones in Assad’s Syria. His whole political existence is predicated on the Shabbiha phrase ‘Assad or we burn the country,’ and they mean it literally,” Ayoub wrote on Facebook. “The safe zones will be as ‘safe’ as Srebrenica in 1993, two years before the genocide in July of 1995.”
Humanitarian groups also warned that safe zones may turn out to be far from havens. In March 2017, Human Rights Watch Legal and Policy Director James Ross said that “safe zones are billed as a way to spare civilians the horrors of war, but all too often they become magnets for the fighting.” Ross said that warring parties should not view safe zones as “a quick and easy way to keep refugees out of their countries.” Using safe zones to justify closing borders to refugees, Ross said, will send a dangerous message to countries elsewhere in the world facing large-scale refugee arrivals.”