U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, September 2016.
Darren Ornitz / Reuters

With the Syria ceasefire he strenuously advocated for in tatters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry faces what might be the biggest test of his career. Russian and Syrian forces are relentlessly pounding Aleppo, with an intense focus on civilian infrastructure. And it might seem like there is no plausible step, besides threatening to suspend engagement with Moscow, that Kerry could take on Syria in the Barack Obama administration’s four remaining months.

But that is not correct. Kerry could convince the president to do what the presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—and notably, their running mates in last night's otherwise contentious debate—have advocated: establish a safe haven in the north of Syria. Distinct from so-called safe areas, like the disastrous Srebrenica safe area in Bosnia, Kerry could advocate for a neutralized zone, a particular type of demilitarized zone set up under international humanitarian law by agreement of the belligerents. Neutralized zones can be created in areas where military operations are ongoing, but they cannot be exploited for military purposes; indeed, they need not even be defended by a military power like the United States.

Since the Russian and Syrian governments have shown no respect for UN humanitarian convoys and have even intensified their attacks on civilians in Aleppo, observers might assume that Moscow or Damascus would never agree to and then respect a neutralized zone. But that, again, isn’t necessarily true.

First, despite Russia’s brazen reaction to criticism of its strike on a humanitarian convoy, the bombing has hurt Russian interests. Moscow depends on the UN as a check on the unilateral exercise of American power. It routinely demands that any exercise of American or NATO power go through the Security Council, where Moscow can exercise its veto; moreover, it sees the UN as a multilateral institution through which it can blunt or sharpen criticism. Agreeing to a neutralized zone in Syria would alleviate some of the pressure to own up to its UN convoy attack.

Second, a neutralized zone would threaten neither Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nor Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s interests. As noncombatant displaced persons populate the zone, they will leave areas that both Syria and Russia want them out of, including a likely safe corridor from Aleppo. Indeed, Kerry’s bigger challenge may be to convince the opposition that the neutralized zone is not simply a repository for those chased out of Aleppo by the Russians and Assad.

Third, the zone’s primary guarantor would not be the United States, but rather Turkey, which has advocated for such a zone for months. Putin and Assad know that Ankara is focused not on Assad, but on preventing the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Kurds from taking more power. With Moscow and Ankara on better terms now, it is plausible that Russia will tolerate a Turkish-controlled area.

When Kerry presents the concept to his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he should state that if the Russians do not agree to the creation of a neutralized zone, then Washington is prepared to set up a full-fledged safe area from which Turkey (on the ground) and the United States and NATO (in the air) would deter Russian or Syrian attacks. Moscow would have to consider whether this is bid is another Obama bluff—like the red line on chemical weapons—or a real commitment.

Putin knows that Obama has no appetite to use force in Syria against anything other than ISIS targets; at the same time, Moscow knows that the U.S. president is keen to save his legacy in Syria. Handing off a neutralized area to his successor, much the same way President George H.W. Bush handed off his end-term decision to back the UN’s Somalia intervention to his successor, Bill Clinton, would improve Obama’s record in Syria.

The neutralized zone would be established in northern Syria. It would stretch north from Aleppo to the Turkish border and east to just west of Kobani. The viability of the zone rests on Turkey’s ability to lead the effort—and militarily guard the zone on the ground—and on the fact that the Syrian regime does not at present fly in this area. In fact, a de facto safe zone is already in place there. Recent Turkish maneuvers have opened the space for thousands of Syrian refugees to cross back over into Jarabulus. For weeks, Ankara has been advocating that the United States and other Western allies work with it to install a formal safe zone.

Ironically, only after the failed coup attempt has Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gained full control of Turkey’s military for the first time. The newfound power has emboldened him. But Turkish maneuvering in Syria has complicated matters; Turkey has successfully pushed the Kurdish YPG forces back east beyond the Euphrates, something the United States laments since the West has relied on the Kurds as the most effective anti-ISIS force on the ground.

But now that Turkey feels that it has successfully created a wedge in Kurdish efforts to occupy the ground in northern Syria from west to east, it is focusing squarely on ISIS. And that brings Ankara and Washington back in sync. Erdogan and Obama have discussed joint operations against ISIS, Erdogan has repeatedly suggested a safe area be established, and he has assented to Obama’s suggestion that Turkey join the coming assault on ISIS’ stronghold in Raqqa.

With a neutralized zone in place and with Turkey fully engaged, Western and Gulf allies would be able to turn to dealing ISIS its most significant defeat to date. Kicking ISIS out of Raqqa would lend substantial momentum to the diplomatic track and put much more pressure on Assad to compromise.

Of course, if Russia were to reject the neutralized zone, then Washington could move forward with a true safe area, protected by the Turks on the ground and a no-fly zone in the air. It would be policed by U.S., Turkish, and select European forces—a collective presence that would make Russia quite nervous, thereby seizing back the initiative from Moscow.

Safe zones are not a radical concept; multiple, small-scale safe areas have already been in existence in western Syria, typically between Hezbollah and Syrian opposition forces. None of them has been bombed by either the Assad regime or Russia.

The last several years have seen the deaths of over half a million Syrians and the flight from the country of more than half of the country’s population. A neutralized zone will help ease the suffering of the millions who are left, seemingly a good enough reason for installing one.

So, the choice for the administration is clear. Leave the initiative with Moscow, hoping that the Russians will come around again to a highly tendentious ceasefire after the opposition gets battered in Aleppo. Or take the initiative and finally give full U.S. support to a zone in which Syrian displaced persons can be safe.

  • EDWARD P. JOSEPH is Executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. DR. JEFFREY A. STACEY was a State Department official in the Obama administration. He is the author of Integrating Europe, from Oxford University Press. Currently, he is an international security consultant residing in Washington, D.C.
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