Safety within Syria

Safe zone for migrants are far-fetched ideas with little prospect of success.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, was published by the National Post on September 18, 2015

To ease the pressure on the West to take in migrants, British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to create a “safe zone” within Syria, protected by U.K., U.S. and Turkish troops, for those now fleeing the Middle East. His views are echoed by EU leaders, and U.S. senators. Turkey’s leaders, too, argue for a safe zone, as do various retired generals and pundits, and Donald Trump, among other presidential aspirants.

One prominent proposal would see an area 98 kilometres long by 45 kilometres wide along Jordan’s border with Syria, capable of receiving some 1.7 million Syrian refugees. Other proposals call for safe zones outside the Middle East – such as on Greek or Italian islands, which an Egyptian billionaire offered to buy for the resettlement of refugees.

What awful ideas, one and all. Host populations and the immediate neighbours to these schemes would soon resent the economic chaos that such a massive influx would cause. The free relief supplies that would likely pour in would put local merchants out of business. Competition for land, water and other resources would lead to lasting enmities, as would job losses when migrants took work performed by locals. Conflicts between the host populations and the newcomers would certainly follow.

A sovereign Rojava would be a magnet for Kurdish families dispersed throughout the Middle East

Conflicts would also occur among the mélange of newcomers, most of whom strongly identify with their own ethnic and religious cultures. Often they would find themselves living among historic enemies. Today’s “safe zone” schemes are likely to make these now safe areas unsafe.

But there are logical “safe zones” – based on historical precedents rather than far-fetched schemes – that the West can and should create, that are highly likely to succeed in keeping Middle East migrants both safe and living among their own, as many would prefer, amid familiar customs. Some of these safe zones already exist in all but name. All that they now need are names – officially recognized names – after which they wouldn’t need U.K., U.S., and Turkish troops to defend them.

One of these names is Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, the Kurdish region in Northern Syria that has broken away from what is today known as the country of Syria. Rojava is efficiently but precariously defended by Kurdish forces, and it aspires to be a democracy with a constitution that espouses religious freedom for ethnic minorities, equal rights for women and a ban on polygamy. Numerous Christians, Yazidis and other minorities live in relative safety in Rojava.

But the West – which wants to keep alive the fiction of an indivisible Syria and doesn’t want to offend Turkey, which opposes Kurdish independence – has not recognized Rojava. Without the status of a sovereign state, Rojava is unable to easily trade, to attract foreign capital or to attract human capital, which it needs to defend its territory – although Rojava has beat back ISIS attacks, it did so only with the help of Iraqi Kurds who rushed in to defend their ethnic brothers. A sovereign Rojava would be a magnet for Kurdish families dispersed throughout the Middle East, giving them a home, citizenship, and the promise of a prosperous life once the fighting ends.

One of those families might have been that of Abdullah Kurdi, who has received so much international sympathy following the tragic death of his three-year old son, Alan. The Kurdis had fled Rojava when ISIS attacked and were safe in Turkey, which had given them refuge. But they wanted more than safety in a strange land, they wanted official “status,” as Abdullah told the BBC. Rojava needed Abdullah as a fighter who would help defend his homeland but it couldn’t give him the status that he sought. We can’t know if Abdullah would have fought for Rojava had it been a sovereign state, internationally recognized, but sovereign status certainly would have instilled hope in Kurds everywhere, and it would have inspired patriotism in many of them.

The history of the Kurds of Syria repeats –  it is a land made up of religious and ethnic minorities. Syria wasn’t a country at all until after World War I, when the colonial powers created it as a federation of six states. Restoring a natural order, by giving Syria’s minorities their own, official homelands, would put an end to much of the statelessness caused by the Syrian Civil War.

Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Probe International. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

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