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Syria buffer zone is latest use of old tool

The demilitarized buffer zone in Syria's Idlib region makes use of a centuries-old tool that international treaties and organizations now use.

The demilitarized buffer zone in Syria's Idlib region makes use of a centuries-old tool that has become an important feature of how international treaties and organizations can offer peace and collective security.

Russian and Turkish troops will start patrolling the 15-20 kilometers zone by mid-October, President Vladimir Putin said after meeting in Sochi with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Its creation in the last major stronghold of anti-government Syrian rebels delays an offensive by Syria, Russia and Iran that could have created a major humanitarian crisis on Turkey's border.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said creating a demilitarized buffer zone in Idlib region should avert a full-scale military operation and offer a reprieve for millions of civilians. He said he "calls [on] all the parties in Syria to cooperate in the implementation of the agreement and ensure safe and unimpeded humanitarian access in all areas through the most direct routes."

The concept of demilitarization zones goes back almost a half-millennium to Europe's rules on demolishing forts or prohibiting their reconstruction.

The 1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, ending the 60-year conflict between France and Spain, had such a prohibition. Denmark gave up some islands in the Elbe River to Hamburg in 1768 on an agreement that no military installations should be built there.

The 19th century demilitarization of the Åland Islands, an archipelago of more than 6,500 islands in the Baltic Sea between modern-day Finland and Sweden, was established by a convention between Britain, France and Russia and confirmed in the 1856 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Crimean War.

Restricted use of military force can have a confidence-building effect in cases such as the Åland Islands, which offer an alternative to the increased militarization seen today, according to Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark, an associate professor of international law who directs the Åland Islands Peace Institute, and two other researchers, Saila Heinikoski and Pirjo Kleemola-Juntunen. They make that case in a book, "Demilitarization and International Law in Context - The Åland Islands," published by Routledge earlier this year.

"To be sure, it was hardly a naïve love of peace that motivated the agreement, nor was there at the time any particular concern for the well-being of the people who populated the islands," Spiliopoulou Åkermark wrote in an article for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's magazine.

"The logic of the demilitarization was, and still is, that of ensuring that this small piece of territory would not be fortified and therefore would be less attractive militarily and less dangerous than it would otherwise be," she wrote. "It is a pragmatic and contextual solution which requires cautious management by all parties concerned and a commitment to the restriction of the use of force."

Put in context, the demilitarization agreements — and collective dispute settlements — were a forerunner to the collective security regime of the League of Nations in 1920 and the United Nations that replaced it in 1945 in hopes of averting another world war, according to Spiliopoulou Åkermark.

Making it work in Syria

The exact nature of Syria's demilitarized zone and how it will be implemented are not yet clear.

Turkey hoped to prevent another assault and major catastrophe in Syria, and appealed to Russia and Iran for help in coming up with a diplomatic solution. It reinforced troops around Idlib to prevent a ground assault. "I believe that with this agreement we prevented a great humanitarian crisis in Idlib," Erdogan said at a briefing with Putin on September 17.

Russia considers Idlib, home to more than 3 million Syrians and an estimated 60,000 rebel fighters, a center of terrorism that the Syrian government has the right to recapture. Putin said Idlib's "radical militants" — al-Qaida-linked jihadists — will have to withdraw from the demilitarized zone.

"We agreed that practical implementation of the steps we plan will give a fresh impetus to the process of political settlement of the Syrian conflict and will make it possible to invigorate efforts in the Geneva format and will help restore peace in Syria," Putin said.

More than a year ago, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, began talking with Russian officials about how to alleviate the widespread suffering in Syria through "de-escalation zones" that Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to establish in May 2017.

These zones were established under a Russian plan for President Bashar Assad’s air force to halt flights over designated areas. A previous cease-fire agreement, also signed in Astana, Kazakhstan, helped ease the war's violence for a few weeks but later collapsed. Other cease-fire attempts in Syria have all failed.

"The participants unanimously underlined that people in need within such zones, as outside of them, must be provided with humanitarian assistance and protection," the ICRC reported. "They agreed that resident population should be protected against the effects of hostilities and other forms of violence. Furthermore, sustained freedom of movement of the civilian population, livelihood autonomy are a must."

Laws of warfare

Strict rules apply to demilitarized zones, which come under the laws of warfare that are spelled out in the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols. As the custodian of those conventions and protocols, the ICRC works to apply and spread international humanitarian law around the world.

Directing an attack against a demilitarized zone is considered a grave breach of the law. A demilitarized zone is an area agreed upon between the parties to the conflict that cannot be occupied or used for military purposes by any party to the conflict, according to the ICRC's database.

"The protection afforded to a demilitarized zone ceases if one of the parties commits a material breach of the agreement establishing the zone," it says. "The agreement may authorize the presence of peacekeeping forces or police personnel for the sole purpose of maintaining law and order without the zone losing its demilitarized character."

Demilitarized zones have been used with international and national armed conflicts between India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, Israel and Syria, Israel and Egypt, and Iraq and Kuwait, and the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia and Nicaragua.

A 1953 armistice brought about the cease-fire between military forces in the Korean War and established the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, along the 38th parallel.

It set up an international organization, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, or NNSC, which is an example of North Korea's sizable but little-known involvement with international organizations. Each year, NNSC members Poland, Sweden and Switzerland discuss operational tasks and other routine matters.

The International Rescue Committee, a New-York based humanitarian group, said the people of Idlib "will rest easier tonight knowing that they are less likely to face an impending assault." However, Lorraine Bramwell, the group's Syria country director, cautioned that previous de-escalation deals didn't last long, The Associated Press reported.

"In order to give people in Idlib peace of mind then, this agreement needs to be built upon by the global powers working together to find a lasting political solution that protects civilians," Bramwell said. "It is also essential that humanitarian organizations are allowed to reach those who will remain in need throughout Idlib, including in any 'demilitarized zone.'"