Better Safe than Sorry

R2P and the Case for the Syrian Buffer Zone

Syrian Kurds wait to cross into Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, September 28, 2014. Murad Sezer / Courtesy Reuters

To date, three million Syrians have fled the war in their country. The exodus has now surpassed the Rwandan genocide as the largest refugee crisis since World War II. So far, the single biggest displacement was triggered by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) march into Kobani, which led 200,000 civilians to flee in just four days. The United Nations has warned of another Srebrenica if Kobani is overrun. Already teeming with 800,000 Syrian refugees, Turkey is now advocating the establishment of a “buffer zone”—an internationally administered safe haven on Syrian territory—to protect major population centers along the Syrian border. The United States, United Kingdom, and France are apparently considering the idea as well.

Much of the commentary about the buffer zone has focused on the significant political and military dilemmas involved. Would a buffer zone exacerbate the refugee crisis, causing more Syrians to flee their war-torn cities on the promise of safety and international aid? Would these civilians then need to be protected by a so-called humanitarian corridor, a column of Western troops and fighter jets around the territory, which could draw the West inexorably into Syria’s brutal civil war? But the most important question may be a legal one: How could NATO or a U.S.-led coalition legitimately occupy part of a sovereign state? 

To the extent that international law can shape and constrain military objectives, the justification offered for a buffer zone would play an important role in marshalling support from friendly states—and signaling intentions to unfriendly ones. Here, evaluating the situation within the framework of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm could be key. R2P could give the West the international legitimacy it needs to create a buffer zone around Kobani. But R2P’s focus on protecting civilians might also raise uncomfortable questions about the West’s responsibility for Syrian refugees’ fate, whether threatened by ISIS or the Bashar al-Assad regime.

R2P reflects an emerging consensus among

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