Some Syrian opposition members and Western countries have called for the creation of safe zones and humanitarian corridors in Syria, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
French Foreign Minister Alain JuppÃ© announced on 24 November that his country was seeking to create “humanitarian corridors” in Syria in response to demands by the Syrian opposition, adding that military action might be required to protect caravans transporting goods through these corridors.
JuppÃ© said France would discuss the issue with its EU partners, the UN and Arab League, adding that the US and France had reached “common ground” on creating the corridors.
Borhan Ghalioun, chairman of the Syrian National Council (SNC) which represents the opposition abroad, had asked the French government to create humanitarian corridors in Syria “because there is a humanitarian crisis resulting from a scarcity of basic goods in the country,” Juppe said.
International law dictates that humanitarian corridors can enable international humanitarian aid organisations to transport essential goods to regions caught up in conflict, civil war or disasters.
The French government is considering establishing a secure corridor to neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, or even to an airport or seaport in Syria, in order to unload humanitarian aid shipments. International humanitarian relief groups could then distribute the aid and medical supplies to residential areas that need them, while international monitors could ensure that the Syrian authorities did not interfere in the operation.
JuppÃ© said that the corridors would be difficult to implement and that they would require the approval of the Syrian government and an international mandate. Without approval from Damascus, the only way to carry out the idea would be by force and with UN support, he said.
“We can protect relief caravans by military force, but we are not at that point yet,” JuppÃ© said, adding that it was likely that options other than military intervention would be pursued.
The UN said there was no urgency in creating the humanitarian corridors, even though more than 1.5 million Syrians are thought to be in need of emergency assistance. UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief Valerie Amos said that the Syrian Red Cross was better able to provide the food aid than international organisations.
The French proposal is not a new one, since members of the country’s opposition abroad and the Syrian Free Army (SFA) formed of defectors from the Syrian army have long asked for the creation of safe zones and no-fly zones in the country. There has also been a suggestion that safe zones should be created in the north of the country along the border with Turkey and in the south on the border with Jordan.
However, creating the corridors depends on factors that do not seem likely to come together in the short term, and the areas hosting such humanitarian corridors and safe zones inside Syria have not been decided.
No decisions have been made on who would secure such areas, or whether neighbouring countries would agree to such plans.
In the case of Libya, the regime of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi made it difficult for humanitarian aid to be distributed, and western countries were only able to do so after the imposition of a no-fly zone under UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
The Arab League has said it intends to ask the UN Security Council to take the necessary steps under the UN Charter to support efforts by the League to resolve the situation in Syria. The statement came after Damascus rejected the Arab peace initiative that had called for the withdrawal of army forces from Syrian towns, the release of tens of thousands of prisoners, and the launching of a dialogue with the opposition under the auspices of the League.
The indications are that the UN will be willing to support Arab League proposals to send a peace mission to observe conditions in Syria, where a nine-month crackdown against anti-regime protests has killed thousands and injured tens of thousands more.
However, Turkey, a neighbouring country that risks being drawn into the Syrian crisis, has said that it is unaware of the details of these proposals. Turkish sources suggest that there are still other options, adding that these should be pursued until the situation in Syria takes a turn for the worse.
The mountainous border region between Syria and Turkey extends over 900km, and there is no real military presence there apart from occasional observation posts. The Adana Agreement signed in 1998 between the two countries imposed a five-kilometre demilitarised zone inside the Syrian border, making it easier for Turkey to create a buffer zone if the idea were to receive international support.
Not everyone in the Syrian opposition agrees to the creation of safe zones and humanitarian corridors. “The proposal to create safe zones or humanitarian corridors in Syria is a political demand dressed up as a humanitarian request,” Nasser Al-Ghazali, director of the Damascus Centre for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“It would propel the Syrian crisis down a path that serves international interests. It would not serve the interests of the Syrian people and their uprising for freedom and dignity.”
Al-Ghazali said that past experience had shown that creating humanitarian corridors “was unsuccessful and mostly resulted in immense suffering, as well as the partition of countries where this took place.”
“Creating buffer zones or humanitarian corridors and legitimising the actions of the SFA would be a magic formula to sharply increase the number of victims in Syria and partition the country.”
Al-Ghazali underscored the importance of protecting civilians in Syria from the regime crackdown. “Unbiased Arab and international monitors should be sent to Syria as a result of a decision by international humanitarian organisations and not the UN Security Council, with the support of the Arab League and the UN,” he said.
“This would be a precondition for defining in exact terms what protecting civilians means, and any decisions should include clear measures according to a short timeline.” If the regime blocked the monitors, “then the matter should be referred to the UN General Assembly and Security Council,” al-Ghazali said.
There are other options on the table, ranging from sanctions against the Syrian regime to military intervention.
“It seems the Syrian regime will continue down the same path,” Anwar al-Bonni, director of the Syrian Centre for Legal Research and Studies, told the Weekly. “It has no other choice except to continue until the end. It is relying on the possibility that people will stop protesting, or that the international community will stop pressuring it. However, neither of these is likely to happen. The regime has entered a dark tunnel and blocked the entrance.”
Nevertheless, the Syrian regime still thinks otherwise, and according to Fayez Ezzeddin, a leading figure in Syria’s ruling Baath Party, “the Arab League and international community are challenging Syria’s sovereignty, and this is unacceptable.”
“Syria will never relinquish its sovereignty because it knows that the Arabs and the West are plotting to destroy the country. It is no longer a matter of freedom or rights for any category of people,” he told the Weekly.
Marah Al-Beqaai, a member of the opposition and director of the Al-Waref Institute for Humanitarian Studies in Washington, suggested that the Arab League should make its decisions binding on Syria.
“The Arab League must form an Arab defence force similar to the one that intervened in Lebanon in the 1980s,” Al-Beqaai told the Weekly. “This is the urgent mechanism needed to end the killing and destruction in Syria, and it is an Arab solution unrelated to foreign interference.”
Al-Beqaai doubted that there would be foreign intervention in Syria. “The international community has clearly demonstrated that it will not directly interfere in Syria. The US is throwing the ball into the EU’s court, and because of difficult economic conditions in Europe, the EU is passing the problem onto Turkey. Turkey is fearful of going to war by itself, so it is passing the buck to the Arab League. Meanwhile, the Syrian regimes continues to kill civilians and destroy the country,” she said.
In an interview with the Weekly, a spokesman for the Coordination Organisation of Forces for Democratic Change, the domestic Syrian opposition, said that “the regime has squandered its last chance. It loves to waste opportunities. The resolutions of the Arab League constituted a solid foundation to put the Syrian crisis on the path towards resolution, but the position of the Syrian regime has propelled the crisis into a more volatile stage.”