No Fly Zone Over Syria Difficult to Establish
No Fly Zone Over Syria Difficult to Establish

WASHINGTON—The suffering from the Syrian civil war is accelerating. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner, reported to the U.N. Security Council last April that each time he makes a report, it is much worse than the previous report. He said that in December, refugees were fleeing Syria at a rate of about 3,000 per day. Since February, 8,000 persons on average have crossed Syria’s borders every day. Syria is becoming a monumental humanitarian crisis with no sign of abatement. 

“As the numbers of displaced, numbers of refugees, numbers of civilian fatalities and wounded have grown to quite an extraordinary proportion, the option of a No Fly Zone has only become louder and expressed with a great deal more urgency, including by a number of very prominent members of Congress,” said Steven Heydemann on May 29 at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Heydemann was the moderator for a discussion of panelists on the military and political implications of a No Fly Zone (NFZ) over Syria.

A NFZ could protect the lives of civilians and perhaps facilitate a political settlement. For a long time, the Syrian opposition has been calling for a NFZ. The option of a NFZ was successfully deployed over Iraq (1991–2003), Bosnia (1993), and most recently, Libya, from March to October 2011. 

However, the latter two instances had U.N. Security Council resolutions supporting the NFZs, which is almost certainly not going to occur in Syria’s case, given the support the Syrian regime has from Russia and China. 

The situation notably worsened as the regime began to use its fixed wing aircraft to bomb civilians in July, August, and September last year, according to Joseph Holliday, a fellow at the Institute for Study of War. The Syrian troops struck areas that the rebels had taken control of so as to deny the opposition the ability to govern. Bakeries and civilians standing in line were bombed to show that the opposition could not provide basic services for the populations in the areas that they controlled, said Holliday.

What Kind of NFZ?

There are few people as qualified to discuss NFZs than retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who was the principal attack planner for the Desert Storm coalition air campaign in 1991, according to the U.S. Air Force website. The NFZ in northern Iraq lasted 12 years. In 1998–1999 in Operation Northern Watch, Deptula flew 82 combat missions, confronted by Iraqi surface-to-air missile sites and anti-aircraft guns.

Deptula said that establishing a NFZ “is not a strategy and not a silver-bullet solution.” If established, the objective—the end state to be achieved—needs to be clearly defined. He said, “It’s not cheap and not risk free. It requires a lot of preparation and smart execution.”

Deptula listed a multitude of considerations when planning an effective NFZ. The rules of engagement would have to be defined. Would Syrian aircraft in the air only be shot down or aircraft on the ground destroyed to prevent them from being flown? If the latter, then runways would be targeted. Would only military aircraft be targeted or cargo planes from other countries?

He asked how the U.S-led coalition would structure a NFZ to allow commercial traffic, not just in Damascus—where it may not want to allow any—but for the region in general.

What would be the area of coverage, all of Syria or part? Still, another question is the duration for the NFZ. Would it be daylight hours and weekdays or would it operate 24/7? 

Northern Watch, the Iraq NFZ, required 50 aircraft, and operated five hours a day, five to six days a week, not 24/7, said Deptula. Iraq’s was a relatively small NFZ compared to what would be established in Syria, where 150 to 300 aircraft would be needed, depending on the areas covered and duration, Deptula said.

One limited option of a NFZ would use Patriot missiles in northern Syria and shoot down any Syrian aircraft that entered the airspace, thereby making a safe zone for Syrians fleeing the violence, Holliday said.

Unlike Iraq, Syria has a robust surface-to-air missile defense system, and has purchased S-300s from Russia that can shoot down planes and ballistic missiles with a range of 125 miles, according to the Guardian. However, this system is not in place now and will take anywhere from six months to over a year before the Syrians are trained to use it, according to the Guardian.

The head of the Free Syrian Army, Salim Idris, told Margaret Warner of PBS on May 31 that once the Russian surface-to-air missile system is in place, it will be “much harder” for the West to establish a NFZ. 

It could also be problematic to bomb Syrian S-300 missile defense sites when Russian advisers are on the ground. Further, if U.S. pilots and flight crews were shot down, American combat troops would have to be present to fly into range of mobile Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, to rescue the airmen, according to the Huffington Post. 

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that Syria and Iran would not fight a conventional war against a Western-led NFZ, because its forces would be vastly inferior. Instead, it would try to diffuse the matter, perhaps destabilize Jordan and Lebanon, and undermine the international support for a NFZ.

The Objective

At the moment, the Syrian regime is guilty of “indiscriminate shelling and bombing,” resulting in thousands of refugees; internally displaced persons numbering in the millions; and tens of thousands of noncombatants killed, wounded, and maimed, said Ambassador Frederick C. Hof, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. 

Hof, who was conferred the title of ambassador for his position as special adviser for Transition in Syria at the U.S. Department of State, said the struggle for Syria is totally militarized with little support for a negotiated settlement favored by the Obama administration.

A majority of the Syrian population would favor what the Obama administration is seeking, which is a national unity government committed to reform, but “regrettably, that aim is not terribly relevant at the moment,” Hof said.

In establishing a NFZ over Syria, the United States and its coalition allies would need to be clear what they want to accomplish, he said. 

“We want to eliminate or severely degrade the ability of the Assad regime to conduct missile, aerial, and military attacks against populated areas,” Hof said. In other words, the aim of a NFZ or destroying regime assets on the ground is to eliminate mass terror. The idea is to change what Hof called the “Assad calculation,” defined as President Assad’s assumption that he can win the civil war militarily and not have to negotiate.

“The administration is not committed to a rebel military victory. Iran, Hezbollah, and, arguably, Russia are committed to a regime victory,” Hof said. 

Of course, the regime would not consent to the use of military force in Syrian territory. Thus, a NFZ amounts to declaring war on the Syrian regime, Hof said. Lacking any U.N. Security Council resolution of support as in Bosnia and Libya, “a U.S. decision to go to war would have to be taken in a context where international authorization would be somewhere between non-existent and extremely contentious,” Hof said. 

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