WEST KURDISTAN (SYRIA) : Buffer Zones: Can They Help?

By Joshua Landis on Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Buffer Zones have become the topic de jour in Washington DC. For some time, the language used in the White House to frame the Syria problem has been that of containment. Here are some of the oft repeated phrases I have been hearing from White House insiders:

  • “Keep the violence inside Syria
  • “Cauterize”
  • “Prepare for Syrian failure”
  • “Shore up the neighbors”
  • “There are no good guys in Syria”

This gloomy assessment of the prospects for Syria has created a cottage industry of policy proposals from Washington think tanks that appropriate White House language and focus on containment. They present possible plans for limiting the destabilization of the region and for shoring up weaker countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

And for building “buffer zones” to ensure that the “Las Vegas rules” apply to Syria: that what takes place in Syria stays in Syria.

Here is Dennis Ross of WINEP on buffer zones: U.S. Policy Toward Syria,  Dennis Ross,  Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,  April 11, 2013

….[A] requirement of our policy now is to hedge against the disintegration of Syria. I often say that the Las Vegas rules don’t apply to Syria; what takes place in Syria won’t stay there. Without making the fragmentation of the country a self – fulfilling prophecy, we need a containment strategy. Much of the opposition is highly localized. We need to think about how buffers can be built up at least in southern Syria, along part of the Syrian/Iraqi border and in the north. Investing in local governance — as part of a coherent design with the British, French, Saudis, Emirates, Jordanians, Turks and others — may be a way to hedge against the unknowns of the future and build the stake of those in Syria to stay put and shape their own future. I don’t suggest that devising a containment strategy will be easy, but we have an interest in doing so and many of our allies, particularly those in the Gulf, do as well. And, the Saudis and Emiratis certainly understand this.

Ross proposes a buffer zone along the Jordanian border. He also earges the establishment of buffers along the Turkish border (already created by Patriot Missiles if they are used against Syrian aircraft) and a Kurdish buffer along the Iraq border. But the focus of his attention is the Jordan border and also presumably protecting the Occupied Golan and Israel from possible attacks by al-Qaida or militias with an anti-Israeli animus.

Ross in a recent talk expressed the hope that Saudi Arabia might be willing to fund such a militia which would serve to protect the monarchy in Jordan, a Saudi interest. The US could help train it.

US special forces are already training Syrian rebels in Jordan. And preparations have been made to possible send up to 20,000 if chemical weapons are used by Syria.

David Pollock, also of WINEP, responded to Ross with Syria’s Forgotten Front in the The New York Times on April 16, 2013.

To keep yet another Syrian frontier from spiraling downward, Washington should urge Israel and the mainstream Syrian opposition to focus on keeping Hizballah and jihadist groups away from the border.

As the civil war in Syria rages on, the risk that Israel will be drawn into the fray is rising….  The risk that Israeli retaliation for cross-border fire could spiral into a major skirmish, or even a larger Israeli intervention to set up a buffer zone in Syria, is real. To prevent it, the United States should broker a tacit agreement between Israel and moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.

Israel and the Syrian opposition don’t have much in common, but they do share some important mutual enemies, namely Hezbollah and Iran, both of which are fighting furiously to save Bashar al-Assad’s government.

This convergence of interests provides an opening for America to quietly strike a deal between Israel and the leadership of the Syrian opposition: Israel should agree to refrain from arming proxies inside Syria to protect its border; and the Syrian opposition should work to keep extremist groups like Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra and other affiliates of Al Qaeda far away from the Israeli frontier. This would demonstrate the Syrian opposition’s bona fides to potential Western supporters and dissuade Israel from intervening or arming allies in Syria.

He goes on to argue that if Israel built a buffer zone inside Syria with a proxy force to protect the Golan , it could backfire as “happened in Lebanon, with disastrous long-term consequences, beginning in the late 1970s when Israel invaded southern Lebanon and set up the South Lebanon Army to protect its border before staging a second, larger invasion in 1982. The result was the creation of Hezbollah, with Iranian support, to “liberate” south Lebanon — a threat that remains today.”

The problem with buffer zones is that they could lead to the dismemberment of Syria. What is more, Obama seems to have little taste for such involvement in Syrian. He seems to believe that they would lead to mission creep.

Bill Frelick, the refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch, writes in the New York Times: Blocking Syrian Refugees Isn’t the Way.

The refugee burden that Syria’s neighbors are shouldering is heavy and should not be borne alone. But keeping people fleeing for their lives in buffer zones inside Syrian borders risks trapping rather than protecting them.

Yet this is precisely what President Michel Suleiman of Lebanon proposed on April 4, joining others such as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, who made a similar call in November 2011, and Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour of Jordan, who spoke in January of securing “safe havens” inside Syrian territory, saying of potential new refugee flows, “We will stop them and keep them in their country.”

It appears that steps are being taken to create such border zones. The United States is working with Jordanian authorities to train Syrian opposition forces in what may be an attempt to set up a buffer zone on the southern border of Syria for defectors from the army and displaced civilians….

It seems quite clear that all of Syria’s neighbors have an interest in creating buffer zones in Syria, particularly if someone else will pay for them and if the US will help manage them. This is not a solution that will be attractive to either the US or Syria.