White Helmets seek safe zones to protect civilians
As US sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have failed to end the war in Syria, the international community must exercise the political will to do so—and, in the meantime, establish safe zones that would put civilians out of harm’s way, according to two members of the Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), also known as the White Helmets.
“The sanctions are not having the intended effect of stopping the war,” said Jehad Mahameed, a liaison officer for the SCD. Manal Abazeed, a volunteer with the White Helmets, called for world leaders, particularly US President Donald Trump, to exercise “the political will to stop this conflict.”
On April 24, the United States imposed sanctions on 271 individuals linked to the Syrian government agency responsible for a chemical attack which killed nearly eighty civilians in rebel-held territory on April 4. Immediately after that attack, Trump ordered a US strike on al-Shayrat air base—from where the chemical weapons attack was launched—in an attempt to destroy the remaining cache of chemical weapons, and send a political signal that the use of such weapons would not be tolerated.
The United States’ European allies praised the strike as an appropriate response to Assad’s attack on civilians. According to Mahameed, “before the strike on Shayrat air base, we had reached a point of complete and utter hopelessness.”
“Up until the strike, no one had been stopping the regime; no one had stood up to the regime at any point,” he said. Abazeed added: “The strike on Shayrat air base gave people a hope, after six years of hopelessness, that maybe this war could end. Maybe someone could stand up to the regime.”
“Unfortunately, one strike wasn’t enough to end this war,” said Abazeed. While she thanked the United States for attempts to alleviate the burden of war thus far—through sanctions and humanitarian aid—Abazeed said: “what is the point of all this assistance if the Syrian people are still being killed?”
“We hope there will be more pressure [from the international community] to stop the regime’s bombardment of civilians,” she said.
Abazeed and Mahameed spoke through an interpreter on a panel at the Atlantic Council on April 24. They provided personal accounts of living through the Syrian civil war. Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, moderated the discussion.
Abazeed insisted that “the first step to ending the war is that there has to be an end to the acts of violence and continuing bombardment of civilian areas.”
Mahameed added that the White Helmets, a group which has saved nearly 80,000 civilian lives in Syria since its inception in 2014, is “strictly humanitarian.”
“We don’t take any political sides,” he said, consequently, “our ask is only for the war to be stopped and for there to be a ceasefire so people will stop being killed.”
Over the course of six years of civil war, beginning in 2011, more than 400,000 civilians have died in Syria, according to estimates given in 2016, and millions more have been displaced. The infrastructure of the country has been devastated, and any semblance of ordinary life has ground to a halt. “After six years of war, we hope that this is enough war, enough violence, enough bloodshed. We just want people to be able to go home,” said Abazeed.
She called for stakeholders in the conflict to find a way to remove Hezbollah, Iranian militias, and other foreign fighters from Syria. According to Abazeed, “once it’s just Syrians that are left in the country, they can sit together at a table and discuss a political solution to start charting a path forward for the Syrian people.”
While such an agreement is negotiated, the Syrian people may be protected by the creation of safe zones. Itani described how the discussion of safe zones has been reinvigorated by the new US administration, and “the south [of Syria] has come up time and again in this conversation.”
Abazeed and Mahameed are both based in the Syrian city of Deraa, located in the southern part of the country and not far from the capital, Damascus. Itani said that the United States still has reliable opposition allies in this area. According to Abazeed, Deraa and the surrounding territories are predominantly controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with only a small pocket held by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Mahameed said that while Deraa’s proximity to Damascus makes the territory more dangerous, “that proximity makes the safe zone there even more important.” He described the significance of establishing an alternative governance structure and flourishing civil society in the shadow of the regime’s capital.
Further, “the geographic location of the safe zone,” should one be established there, “makes it of vital importance to keep that entire area safe,” said Mahameed. He insisted that hostilities must be kept away from US allies Jordan and Israel, both of whom border Syria’s southern region. Israel and Jordan have also taken in enormous numbers of Syrian refugees over the course of the conflict.
“The safe zone would be protection from all parties, regardless of who those are parties are,” Mahameed said. He insisted that the impetus behind the safe zone is not to initiate further conflict among competing actors, but to end the conflict for civilians.
In terms of governance, “regional countries would be responsible for enforcement and making sure hostilities stop in that safe zone,” according to Mahameed.
However, he said, “the regime will not willingly allow a safe zone to be established there. That’s something that will have to come about through pressure from the international community.”
Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.