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 countries that protecting civilians from mass atrocities is both an essential component of sovereignty and is critical to international security. When a state lacks the capacity or “manifestly fails” to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, R2P empowers the international community to step in. The situation in northern Syria, where ISIS has attacked the citizens of Kobani with impunity, seems to fall squarely under R2P. The Assad regime is either unwilling or unable to protect the Kurdish civilians living there, who are now under imminent threat of being massacred by ISIS on the basis of their ethnicity.

There are a number of reasons why the West might need to rely on R2P to justify a buffer zone in Syria. In a letter to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, the United States supported its current air campaign against ISIS in Syria on the basis of a “collective defense” of Iraq. But ISIS had taken over significant Iraqi territory, at one point threatening Baghdad. It would be difficult to argue that ISIS poses a similar threat to Turkey. Further, the focus of the buffer zone would be more about saving Syrian civilians than protecting Turkey from ISIS itself, making the collective defense justification an awkward fit. Without an explicit UN Security Council resolution or authorization from the Syrian government (both extremely unlikely), a buffer zone would need a legal basis beyond collective defense. 

Another issue is that buffer zones have historically required much more than air power to succeed. As the Srebrenica massacre illustrates, “safe havens” can end in tragedy when they aren’t enforced by a substantial military presence. There, Serb paramilitaries massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys, as lightly-armed Dutch peacekeepers watched helplessly, hamstrung by vague rules of engagement and inconsistent NATO air support. In both Syria and Iraq, ISIS has proven itself to be determined, ruthless, and effective. At a minimum, then, a buffer zone in Syria would require substantial ground forces on Syrian soil backed by a no-fly zone and a clear mandate to use force to protect civilians. It’s hard to imagine Damascus remaining silent as Western troops occupy its sovereign territory. And that makes securing broad legal justification for the operation all the more important.

Still, military action on the basis of R2P is bound to be controversial, since Russia will likely veto any Security Council resolution. There is no good answer to the question of what the international community can do when the United Nations fails to act in the face of imminent mass atrocities. When the United Kingdom argued last August that using force to stop the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks on civilians would be legal even without Security Council authorization, many states vigorously disagreed. Even so, the legal right to use force to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity has arguably existed since the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. R2P refined the doctrine of humanitarian intervention by imposing a legal framework that restricts military operations to those focused on protecting civilians.

Legality aside, another concern is that a buffer zone could lead to a broadening of the Western mission in Syria. Although R2P wouldn’t legally obligate the West to intervene if the Assad regime, for instance, launched another chemical weapons attack on civilians, it would make it much harder for the West to ignore. A buffer zone would also force the West to confront Syria’s disintegration, and, in some sense, take responsibility for the fate of its people. Libya’s post­-Muammar al-Gaddafi turmoil has left many disillusioned about the West’s ability to intervene and stabilize countries in the region.

Perhaps this is why, despite the renewed interest in creating a buffer zone, its ultimate aim remains murky. Some countries, such as France and the United Kingdom, probably see it in largely humanitarian terms, as a way to provide protection and relief to Syrians fleeing ISIS and Assad, and enable aid organizations to deliver badly needed food, water, and medical supplies. Yet others, such as Turkey, likely want it to also serve as a staging ground for “moderate” rebel groups to launch attacks on the Assad regime. In Damascus, a buffer zone would almost certainly be viewed as a provocation. Counterattacks could draw the United States and its allies into the region’s worst conflict in a generation.

Whether a Syrian buffer zone makes sense militarily and politically depends on whom you ask. To be sure, a buffer zone presents serious risks—but the status quo is fast becoming untenable. What Kobani has made clear is that Syria’s humanitarian crisis is quickly becoming Turkey’s national security issue. If NATO or a U.S.-led coalition decided to assist Turkey in establishing a buffer zone, many states would undoubtedly object, but R2P could provide a sound legal basis for it.

Even so, R2P would not provide a blank check for intervention in Syria; it would only permit the use of proportionate military force that is necessary for protecting civilians in the buffer zone. In this sense, R2P’s legal framework could help mitigate the risk of mission creep, as long as the Assad regime doesn’t perpetrate any mass atrocities in the future. But it’s also true that invoking R2P would send a message that protecting Syrian civilians is now the West’s duty. And it isn’t at all clear that this is a responsibility the United States and its allies would welcome.

  • J. TREVOR ULBRICK is an attorney and policy analyst focusing on post-conflict governance and transitional justice issues in the MENA region.
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