A Safe Zone for Syria

Kerry's Last Chance

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

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