Making Syria Safe for Refugees

How to Head Off a Humanitarian Crisis

A refugee boy at a camp near the village of Karama, east of Raqqa, July 2017. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

As Russia’s “de-escalation plan” for the ongoing war in Syria takes effect, neighboring countries are keen to return massive Syrian refugee populations to the four safe zones that the plan establishes in the western part of the country. Key leaders in Lebanon and Jordan are continuing to advocate for return, and according to Turkish officials, Turkey has facilitated the return of at least 110,000 refugees to Syria as of June 20, 2017. Pushing for the premature return of refugees in Syria is incredibly dangerous and shortsighted. Russia’s proposal may well be the only path to a negotiated settlement between the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the Sunni Arab opposition, but the safe zones are far from ready for the return of refugees.

Although Russia’s de-escalation plan officially went into effect in early May, continued regime offensives in multiple areas that are ostensibly under ceasefires show that the safe zones are still in their infancy. The zones—each strongholds of the opposition—will not truly be safe until pragmatic elements in the opposition and their external backers can defeat extreme elements. The battles to come will mean continued displacement in the near term, and if return happens before the conflict is over, it will result in far more deaths and make lasting settlement and reintegration much less likely.


The core challenge in creating genuine safe zones in the four proposed areas—Idlib province, the northern Homs countryside, east Ghouta, and parts of Dara’a—is ensuring that the dominant groups there will abide by ceasefires and that they will eventually accept and uphold a more comprehensive peace agreement. To this end, irreconcilable groups—“terrorist groups,” as Russia’s plan calls them—must be identified and then isolated, defeated, or removed from the safe zones. Russia’s plan stipulates that “guarantors”—Russia, Turkey, and Iran for now—and agreed-upon partners on the ground should fight these irreconcilables.

Which groups will be reliable partners and which groups qualify as irreconcilables remain unclear.

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