Murky Waters: Implications of a Syrian No-Fly Zone

Syrian Flag

by Dylan Maguire, Research Intern
Edited by Dr. Denise Natali, Minerva Chair

As the events in Syria continue to unfold and new accounts of atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime against the Syrian people are reported, calls for the international community to take decisive action will grow stronger.

At a recent panel held at the Rethink Institute in Washington, DC, an affiliate of the Turkic American Alliance, senior staff from the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies as well as the Syrian Expatriates Organization called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to create and maintain a humanitarian corridor inside Syria proper. All of us who are following the events transpiring in Syria want to encourage policy options that will stop the killing and lead to a transfer of power from the dictatorial regime to one that reflects the true aspirations of the Syrian people. However, before the legitimate use of military power can be employed in a responsible manner it is important that all of the possible consequences of such a policy are explored. Recent history provides us with two interesting case studies, Iraq and Libya. When examining these cases it is important to remember that the stated goal in Libya was Qaddafi’s departure while in Iraq it was population protection and humanitarian relief.

After Operation Desert Storm and the surrender of the Iraqi Army, the Kurds in the North and the Shia’s in the South revolted against Saddam’s regime. The international coalition decided to impose a no-fly zone over portions of the north and south of Iraq to prevent Saddam from using his air force to put down these rebellions. In addition to preventing Iraqi over-flight in the north, coalition ground forces also began distributing humanitarian aid among the Kurds. While Saddam was unable to use fixed-wing aircraft to suppress those in revolt, he made effective use of helicopters, artillery, and ground troops. The coalition air assets could have expanded their target options to include these ground forces, but they did not. In fact, there were almost no Iraqi planes for coalition pilots to engage as Saddam largely respected the no-fly zone knowing that his ground forces were more than capable against the lightly armed resistance. There are three lessons to be learned from this episode. First, no-fly zones are only effective against other aircraft, when ground force is used as the means of oppression, then what is called for is a no-drive zone, or in effect a conventional air campaign. Second, lightly armed resistance movements will not be able to mount decisive counter-regime operations unless they are supported by conventional air power. Third, dictators like Saddam and Assad are well aware of the capabilities of all parties involved and will play their cards as effectively as possible. They will do so by limiting their exposure to overwhelming air-power while using their conventional ground forces to demolish the local opposition.

A good example of a no-fly zone expanding into a no-drive zone is the recent NATO air campaign in Libya. The limited operation to prevent Qaddafi from using his air force against the resistance quickly turned into a conventional air campaign as Qaddafi made use of his armor and artillery to pound revolutionary cities into submission. When allied airplanes began to attack these formations Qaddafi ordered his forces to shed their uniforms and heavier equipment. They changed their dress to appear like the opposition forces in order to confuse NATO pilots. This in turn led to the need for on-the-ground coordination between Libyan revolutionary forces and NATO command and control to prevent friendly fire casualties. What had begun as a limited no-fly zone quickly morphed into NATO acting as the air force for the Libyan revolutionary forces. Again there are three main lessons that can be taken away from this case. First, in these types of operations mission creep is not a possibility but a certainty. Second, dictators like Qaddafi and Assad will not hesitate to change their ground strategies to realize the full potential of their own forces, even if that means breaking all of the recognized laws of war, such as wearing uniforms and driving marked vehicles. Finally, by wedding allied airpower to local opposition forces, western nations will be taking ownership of the conflict and all that entails. When non-combatants are unintentionally killed by allied air strikes it could potentially help to further entrench the dictator’s base, or possibly turn locals against allied forces.

In addition to the lessons that can be learned from these two cases there are other questions that must be answered before the US military engages in any operations in Syria. In the Iraq case, only certain areas of the country were protected by the no-fly zone. In Syria how will the no-fly zone and the humanitarian corridor be defined? Will the no-fly zone only protect a few of the varied ethnic communities in Syria? If coalition forces choose only to protect certain communities, this would have an effect on the domestic balance of power once Assad was ousted. How long will the no-fly zone be established for and who will pay for its upkeep and enforcement? If the Assad regime falls, will the US become responsible for the creation of a new government in Syria? By taking on these responsibilities the US would be committing itself to a new round of nation building in the Middle East.

The killing taking place in Syria at the hands of the Assad regime is unconscionable and must be recognized as such by the full international community. Yet, beginning an air campaign to limit Assad’s military capabilities could turn into a full-fledged conventional battle between allied power and the hardcore elements of the regime. Leaving aside issues concerning UN Security Council resolutions and Russian intransigence, the US must realize that in committing to a no-fly zone policy it will be in effect declaring war on Assad’s regime. If that is truly the desired policy, then a real war plan making use of the full capability of the US military must be employed. However, it appears that this is precisely what the Obama administration is seeking to avoid. Thus, it must refrain from taking actions, such as imposing a no-fly zone, which will inevitably lead it to the same place.


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Filed under Featured News, Middle East, Regional Studies, Strategic Studies

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