Safe havens are needed in Syria – more than ever

Russian plane crash and the US Special Forces’ deployment in northern Syria should make safe havens possible.

Russian plane crashes in Egypt with 224 aboard
The death of Russian citizens should turn Vladimir Putin's focus towards defeating ISIL and not targeting moderate Syrians, writes de Bretton-Gordon [EPA]

The manifest dreadfulness of the Syrian refugee crisis requires the international community to re-evaluate its approach to Syria, which would help its brightest and best remain in the country rather than desperately try to escape to other countries around the world. The current outflow is condemning Syria to a terminal and irreversible decline.

It is the indiscriminate bombing, especially by banned barrel bombs, which include chemical weapons, that is the main drive forcing people out of Syria.

Resettling over four million registered Syrian refugees is not an option for policymakers, and if nothing is done to slow down the exodus of civilians, this figure could more than double, as there are seven million more displaced inside the country.

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The demands of many groups – including a coalition of bishops – that the UK take in a few thousand more refugees are laudable, but they don’t even scrape the surface of the challenge.

No Syria will be left to save

Radical and determined action is required now to keep Syrians safe in their homeland. The challenges of getting the international community and the UN Security Council’s agreement to coordinate action are legion, but prevarication over these difficult options is exacerbating the situation.

Soon there will be no Syria left to save, as most of the healthy, educated, and professional Syrians will have left for Europe or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and there will be no future for this pretty much failing state.

If we want to stop the expansion of ISIL and prevent millions more Syrian refugees from fleeing to Europe over the winter, doing nothing is no longer an option.


Axiomatically, the dreadful news that the exploded Russian airliner with the loss of more than 220 lives – possibly by ISIL action – over the Sinai last week, as well as the deployment of United States Special Forces to northern Syria, might have created the conditions that would allow the international community to develop “safe havens” in Syria, starting with the northern part.

The death of Russian citizens should turn Vladimir Putin’s focus on defeating ISIL and not targeting moderate Syrians. I expect Russian actions in Syria have now put Russia at the head of ISIL’s target list, especially from the “ultra-extreme” and most violent Chechen fighters in ISIL.

The deployment of US Special Forces in northern Syria to train the moderate rebel groups will have two significant impacts: Firstly, I don’t believe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Putin would dare bomb northern Syria, as that could strike US servicemen and seriously antagonise and anger the US.

Secondly, training and advising moderate rebels would make them a much more effective fighting force – effective against ISIL and other terror groups – and also enable them to properly protect the proposed safe havens in northern Syria.

‘No-bombing zone’

A “no-bombing zone” (NBZ) to deter these indiscriminate aerial attacks and to create safe havens is the only option at the moment with a realistic chance of success: It is militarily feasible, does not confront Russia, and can be implemented in days.

It may well be that Russia will veto this action at the UN Security Council, but Russia also might be more conciliatory after the airliner crash in the Sinai. However, in hindsight of what happened with Kosovo over a decade ago – I hope the international community will act now, and reconcile with the UN later.

Infographic: Syria: A Country Divided [Al Jazeera]
Infographic: Syria: A Country Divided [Al Jazeera]

Unlike a “no-fly zone” (NFZ) of the kind in Libya or Iraq, an NBZ will not require overflights by coalition planes or pre-emptive strikes on the Syrian regime’s anti-aircraft defences.

The airspace can be monitored by airborne radar (AWACS) that are already present in the region and enforced by missiles delivered from destroyers off the coast of Turkey.

Also read: Analysis: US Special Forces in Syria, why now?

Assad’s aircraft can be warned if they approach the NBZ. However, if they breach the NBZ, then limited and prudent actions can be taken against regime targets, such as aircraft, radar sites, and runways. By only targeting regime sites, there is not the risk of an escalation between the US and Russia, which many fear with a traditional NFZ.

By dealing a cost for any incursion into the NBZ, the coalition forces can make it clear that any continued attacks on civilians will only result in a weakening of the regime itself.

Crucially, Assad’s key ally, Russia, will not want to see the regime’s power diminished in this way, so it will be incentivised to dissuade Syrian aerial attacks on civilians and accelerate the process of a political transition agreed upon by all parties at the Vienna talks.

ISIL equation

An NBZ would not empower ISIL – quite the opposite; it would weaken them. The communities currently targeted by both the Syrian regime and Russia are those that have traditionally been fighting against ISIL.

Doing nothing to protect these communities who are resisting both the regime and the extremists will only strengthen the hand of ISIL in the long term.

Political momentum for an NBZ and safe havens is growing in the UK. MPs Andrew Mitchell and Jo Cox have already expressed support for such a notion. And further cross-bench support from Hilary Benn to protect civilians – even in the face of a Russian veto at the UN – is showing perhaps the gathering of a proactive bow wave in the UK to protect civilians in Syria. There is also much support in the US with former General David Petraeus and Senator John McCain calling for safe havens.


According to one of the groups I work with – the International Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations – three-quarters of children between the ages of nine and 13 suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. For too long we have denied protection to the civilians facing these aerial attacks by the Syrian regime.

If we want to stop the expansion of ISIL and prevent millions more Syrian refugees from fleeing to Europe over the winter, doing nothing is no longer an option.

The tragedy of the Russian air crash and the deployment of US Special Forces to northern Syria might just bring a glimmer of hope to the Syrian people, who have already lost over 300,000 souls and have had to flee in the millions. But now, action is required – not prevarication and more dialogue.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemical weapons adviser to NGOs working in Syria and Iraq. He is a former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion.

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