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De-Escalation Zones in Syria: Not an Alternative for Refugees

On 3 May 2017, Iran, Turkey, and Russia signed a proposal in Astana for the creation of “de-escalation zones” in Syria.  Fighting—including aerial attacks—would cease and humanitarian assistance would be made available. One such de-escalation zone already exists under the military control of the Turkish-led coalition in Jarablus. It has shown to be a poor alternative for refugees looking to exercise their asylum rights under international refugee law.  The existence of this so-called “safe zone” is used to justify the continued closure of the Turkish border for new refugees, the return into Syria of existing refugees, and the displacement of populations inside Syria. This practice should not be repeated with the newly proposed de-escalation zones. Creating temporary ceasefires in some pockets inside a country in active conflict cannot be an alternative for the right to seek asylum from war across borders.

A secondary objective of the Jarablus “safe zone” was to create an area where humanitarian needs would be met and, under that incentive, thousands of Syrians based in Turkey could return to Syria.  The promised humanitarian services however were not widely provided throughout the zone. On May 8, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) received reports that forty-five individuals left the “safe zone” and returned to Al Waer, a reconciled area near Homs where populations had been evacuated after suffering years of besiegement and several months of particularly heavy bombardments leading up to the reconciliation agreement. They said the reason they left Jarablus was the insufficiency of health care and lack of services in this “safe zone.”

Another de-facto “safe zone” was created by the Jordanian army as they closed the Rukban border crossing with Syria on 21 June 2016, following an attack on one of their nearby army bases. Since then, 70,000 refugees continue to be trapped in a de-militarized buffer zone at the Syria-Jordan border, dubbed the “Berm” in reference to the earthen walls that enclose this area. Delivery of aid from Jordan into this no-man’s land was initially suspended, leading to dystopian scenes of high-rise cranes lifting aid supplies over the berm walls as a way to deliver goods without entering.  Since then, aid is only allowed on condition that water and other basic provisions be placed as far away from the Jordanian border as possible, which forces refugees to move back towards Syria. “The Berm” is an exceptional illustration of “safe zones,” mainly driven by security concerns. As a result, though, this population continues to be denied the right to seek asylum under the pretext that this no-man’s land is safe while humanitarian assistance is used as a lure to move people further back into a country in conflict. Humanitarian assistance cannot be used as a push or pull factor to entice people to move in politically expedient directions. Access to humanitarian assistance needs to be assured everywhere in Syria, not only in artificially created “safe zones” for the privileged few, or subject to military or political objectives.

The proposed de-escalation zones that currently target East Ghouta, Idlib (and the surrounding areas of Latakia, Hama and Tartous), Northern Homs, Dara’a, and Quneitra are to be policed by the three signatories of the Astana deal, who are seeking a wider diplomatic endorsement of the scheme through the UN Security Council. So far, the response to the scheme on the ground has been mixed. In some areas, such as East Ghouta, the agreement has resulted in some positive early indicators including, a decrease in bombing, lower taxes and some increase in movement of commercial goods. In other areas, the agreement has not held any hopes for the populations in the area. In the south, close to Dara’a, the announced proposal led to an increase in taxation as well as triggering renewed violence in the “de-escalation zone.”

Any ceasefires, truces, or other cessations of hostility are of course welcome, regardless if they are branded safe, de-escalation, or reconciliation zones. The safety and protection for civilians should not be limited to designated zones, particularly when previous cease-fires have failed.  Refugees should not be enticed to return to areas prone to conflict and where humanitarian needs are not met.  Indeed, there are no exceptions to the obligations of all warring parties in all of Syria to protect civilians.

The primary purpose however of these zones appears to be to avoid any more refugees leaving Syria, and creating spaces where existing refugees are encouraged back into the country in conflict that they tried to flee. “Safe zones” are not a viable alternative for refugees. This practice is an unacceptable violation of international refugee law. De-escalation zones – “safe zones” – cannot be used as an alternative for the right to seek asylum outside a country at war.

[This article was originally published in MSF Analysis.]

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