Syria’s corridor diplomacy

The “responsibility to protect” principle provides the opportunity to help Syrian civilians everywhere.

The bottom line is the creation of a protected space which on their own will not end Syria's war but could be a step change in dynamics of conflict, writes Denselow [Reuters]

Russia’s dramatic escalation in Syria’s civil war has been rightly described by the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini as a “game-changer”. Yet the focus on the rights, wrongs and long-term impact of Moscow’s new role shouldn’t distract from a coming together of some of the conflict’s political tectonic plates that open up a range of new potential scenarios.

The rise and rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the realisation that Syria’s refugee crisis will not be contained within the country or the region, with more than 710,000 migrants entering the EU in first 9 months of 2015, have pushed Syria right up the political agenda in Western capitals.

They cannot survive ‘there’

Would a no-fly zone in Syria serve any purpose?

Much of the focus on the refugee crisis has been on quotas and who is taking how many. However, there is the potential to channel the renewed urgency in tackling Syria’s collapse into new means of addressing the humanitarian crisis with a view to changing some of the political aspects of the conflict.

Humanitarian corridors, no-fly zones and safe havens have been long muted suggestions that have suddenly found themselves relevant once more. If done correctly and promptly, these “humanitarian land grabs” have the potential to both help slow the refugee flow into Europe and empower the increasingly marginalised moderate voices inside Syria.

They will also show that the West is willing to be proactive towards the conflict rather than project a series of reactions towards the behaviour of others.

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Twelve million Syrians are currently in need of humanitarian assistance, over half of the entire population. The availability of aid has unsurprisingly acted as a magnet for displaced people, with agencies currently spending twice as much on the four million Syrian refugees outside the country than on the 7.6 million internally displaced.

With an estimated 50-60 barrel bombs falling on opposition areas daily, the push and pull factors affecting civilian moment are fairly obvious. They are increasingly “here” because they can’t survive “there”.

Humanitarian channels

So, what are the options in the face of such challenge? British parliamentarian and former aid worker, Jo Cox, explained this week that “our failure to intervene to protect civilians left [Bashar] al-Assad at liberty to escalate both the scale and the ferocity of his attacks on innocent Syrians in a desperate attempt to cling to power”.

This November will see the G20 summit in Turkey and the perfect moment for world leaders to make the political commitment to a protection of humanitarian space, backed by whatever military resource is necessary to do so.


In other words, we’ve become far too focused on the politics and not the people. This lack of attention to Syrian civilians has now reached a point where the UN are now reporting a “worrying” rise in Syrians forced to return to their country absent any other option.

This imbalance can be redressed. With Russian involvement effectively nixing the idea of no-fly zones, there needs to be a proactive move to implement the two UN Security Council resolutions on aid access that were agreed upon.

The time is right for a concerted attempt to establish humanitarian channels of some sort into Syria, whether these be humanitarian ceasefires, corridors, no-drive, no-fly zones, aerial aid drops (in light of the US conducting military ones) or even no-bombing zones enforced from maritime assets in the Mediterranean.

The bottom line is the creation of a protected space – which, on its own, will not end Syria’s war – but could be a step towards change in the dynamics of the conflict and would reflect a genuine commitment to the Syrian people.

Humanitarian corridors are not a new concept, as Refugees International proved with an analysis of the history of proposed schemes in Nigeria, Iraq, Central African Republic, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Angola, Libya and Mozambique.

Responding to the suggestion at the British Parliament of creating safe zones, Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood countered that “history tells us that implementing genuinely safe zones is difficult and must be accompanied by an international mandate that would provide the will, the authority and the full means to ensure that they have a chance of being effective. It would also involve significant military commitment”.

Changing the game

Ellwood is right that a demonstration of Western “will” would be needed. Yet, to date, much of the Western “will” has taken the form of a military commitment, which has been myopically focused on attacking ISIL from the air while engaging in a failing policy to arm Syrian moderate rebels that was finally killed off this month.

However, Turkey has long muted the suggestion of a protected space within Syria and may be the key to this proceeding practically.

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Back in 2012, the Turkish prime minister said he was considering intervening as far as 10km into Syria to create a “humanitarian buffer zone” to help refugees get out. Turkey is currently playing host to a reported 2.2 million Syrian refugees at a cost of $7.6bn to date.

Syria’s war has aggravated Turkey’s internal politics and Ankara bombing on October 10, which killed over 100 people, was linked to ISIL in the worst single act of terrorism in the country’s history.


With at least three Russian infringements in Turkish airspace so far, it is very much in Ankara’s interests to give themselves geographical breathing space from the Syrian war.

This November will see the G20 summit in Turkey and the perfect moment for world leaders to make the political commitment to a protection of humanitarian space, backed by whatever military resource is necessary to do so.

In 2005, the concept of the “responsibility to protect” was adopted at the World Summit. Syria provides the opportunity to make good on their principles with practical steps to help Syrian civilians.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.