October 11th, 2011
01:09 PM ET

Time to impose a No Fly Zone over Syria?

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter.

By Micah Zenko, CFR.org

In mid-August, talk show host Stephen Colbert asked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice why the United States had not intervened to save the lives of Syrians as it had in Libya. Ambassador Rice replied that Syrian opposition members had told U.S. diplomats, “What they want from the United States is more leadership, political pressure, and sanctions, but very clearly no military intervention.”

Since then, opposition forces who seek the fall of the Bashar al Assad regime have increased their demands for an international military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone (NFZ) over all or parts of Syria. However, as was true in Libya, the military mission that is actually required is one of close air support. It is important for the international community to correctly assess the situation on the ground and understand the distinctions between NFZs and close air support before exploring the use of military force in Syria.

Three things have happened in Syria in the past few months that explain the increased demands for a NFZ intervention:

First, the use of violent repression by state security forces against overwhelmingly unarmed protestors has continued unabated. According to the United Nations, from mid-August to last Thursday, October 6, the estimated number of civilian casualties has increased, from 2,200 to over 2,900. In addition, opposition forces have faced arbitrary arrests, detentions and systematic torture, while political activists living abroad have been monitored and harassed by Syrian intelligence agents operating out of diplomatic outposts.

Second, political condemnation and economic sanctions have not compelled the Assad regime to stop its brutal crackdown. World leaders have condemned the regime’s systemic human rights abuses, and have called for Assad to step down from power. The United States has imposed three sets of economic sanctions - April 29May 18, and August 17 - against specific Assad regime officials and the Syrian government, and other countries have followed suit. However, as the Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council three weeks ago, the Syrian regime “appears determined to pursue its policy of violent repression despite international and regional calls to change course.”

Third, the previously disparate opposition groups have coalesced around the unifying message of regime change. On October 2, the formation of the Syrian National Council (SNC) was announced in Istanbul, which will reportedly include a twenty-nine person general secretariat representing the seven largest Syrian opposition factions.  Following the model of the Libyan Transitional National Council, the SNC has created a website that lists “toppling of the regime” as one of its founding goals.

Read: Targeted Killings and America’s ‘Kill Lists.’

SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun recently stated that “the council rejects any outside interference that undermines the sovereignty of the Syrian people.” Yet, other SNC members are demanding that the international community - with NATO usually specified - should impose a NFZ over all or some of Syria.

There are two reasons put forward for why a NFZ is needed in Syria. First, some opposition memberscontend that it will protect civilians. Senator Joe Lieberman, who already supported a Syrian NFZ six months ago, more recently endorsed “safe zones inside Syria, particularly along the Turkish and Jordanian borders,” which would be enforced through a NFZ.  Second, as one Syrian activist claimed yesterday, a NFZ would compel more members of the army to defect and “would allow them to organize.”

However, there are a few points to bear in mind before the international community proceeds toward imposing a NFZ over Syria.

The overwhelming number of civilian casualties are not the result of strikes from above. As was true in Libya, the vast majority of deaths are in urban areas, and are caused by soldiers on the ground, tanks, short-range artillery, and snipers. While the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that the Syrian Air Force has 555 combat capable aircraft - including 150 fighters and 289 fighter ground attack planes - they have not yet been used against civilians. Given that the real problem for civilians is persistent oppression from ground forces, a NFZ would have little or no impact in protecting the vulnerable.

Read: Anwar al-Awlaki: What We Learned from His Killing.

On a handful of occasions, Syrian security forces have unleashed helicopter gunships against civilian protestors, or in coordination with armored ground forces against rural villages. Enforcing a NFZ against helicopters is an operational challenge, which would require a significant commitment of surveillance and strike aircraft, since helicopter gunships can quickly take off, fly low, launch airstrikes, and land. Regime-directed helicopters repeatedly violated the NFZs over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, and to a limited extent in Libya, without being attacked because it was difficult to distinguish between civilian and military helicopters, and there was insufficient air assets or political will.

Lastly, the NFZ in Libya did not protect civilian populations; it was actually the use of close air support against Gadhafi regime forces on the ground. The Pentagon defines close air support (CAS) as “air action by fixed-and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and that require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” (If interested to learn more, you can read the official joint doctrine publication for CAS here.) To successfully implement CAS against Syrian ground forces, boots will be on the ground as well, since western air forces generally will not provide CAS in contested, urban environments without on-the-ground assistance from trusted forward air controllers and intelligence agents, as was true in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Libya.

Read: How We Die.

When Syrian opposition members, exiled activists and U.S. Senators call for a no-fly-zone over Syria, what they are actually proposing is close air support. CAS is a different military mission from NFZs, and requires a different campaign plan, detailed mission plans, personnel, ordinance and surveillance and attack assets. Furthermore, CAS is a tactic that can be used to protect civilians, or to support regime change that requires an armed opposition on the ground. Neither the Syrian opposition, nor anybody else, has adequately explained how a CAS military mission will be integrated into a broader strategy of either civilian protection or toppling Assad.

Nine days before the international community intervened in Libya, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee, warning: “I want to remind people that, you know, we had a no-fly zone over Iraq.  It did not prevent Saddam Hussein from slaughtering people on the ground, and it did not get him out of office.” Secretary Clinton’s words of caution were prophetic. It was not a no-fly-zone, but rather close air support that played the decisive role in getting Moammar Gadhafi out of power. If that military mission is required in Syria, we should identify it appropriately, and consider the operational requirements and political will that will be required.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Micah Zenko.
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Topics: Syria • United Nations

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Oliver

    it is a big wast of time discuss if now is time to impose a No Fly Zone over Syria. Russia and/or China will not permit any no-fly zone resolutions about Syria after the case of Libya.

    October 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      True, China and Russia saw that the Resolution 1973 led to regime change in Libya. The No-Fly-Zone justified Britain and France to paralyse Libya's military capabilities, so that Gaddafi couldn't harm the civilians. In the case of Syria, it will never go that far. Besides the Syrian armed forces are far too strong and the casualties would be much higher.

      October 11, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
      • Lulu

        Steve was Syrian!

        October 11, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  2. Miami1111

    A no-fly-zone would have to be coming from Turkey or independently from NATO, without having to go to the UN Security council. I say it's time to teach Assad a lesson....

    October 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  3. Thomas Hooley

    I whole-heartedly support a no fly zone.

    October 12, 2011 at 12:02 am |
    • Dave Takaki

      NFZ will by it self accomplish nothing.

      If I understand your intent, what you are asking for is SEAD in order to provide air to ground action in close support of Syrian Free Army.

      Not the same thing. Please clarify.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Сирийская подлинного

    There is no (no-fly-zone) or war at Syria
    1- Syrian Army are very strong
    2- no one can pay the bill, as you know nothing free, and Syria have not enough OIL, all wars about OIL
    3- no-fly-zone turn the erea (middle east) to open war, and that make Israel terrify cause of Syrian strong army and Syrian missiles
    4- 90% of Syrian people with Al-assad that make US and NATO in hard situation,
    5- any war or no-fly-zone at Syria that will redraw the middle east map and countries, and US can't gambleing at Israel future
    all this media war against Syria cause of economy crisis in USA and Urope (if you are in war that give you a reason for economy crisis), and to protect Israel and keep OIL flow to USA, and keep erea under USA control, that is a USA dream and will stay unattainable
    i know that USA don't care about people democracy, but this is a good lie

    October 12, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • Ali Khader

      1. Syrian army is not strong. I served in it. Israel, NATO, etc, can wipe out the Syrian army in a very short time. Most soldiers will defect immediately.
      2. Not all wars about oil. Read about Bosnia
      3. Israel is not afraid. Maybe concerned. They have the means for preemptive strikes and can retaliate immediately. Any attack on Israel will not last very long (if it starts).
      4. 90% of Syrian being with the regime is an absolute lie. I lived there for 40+ years (just left recently). Except for the few beneficiaries of the regime, most people are sick and tired of living under a brutal dictatorship.
      5. That's your opinion. Scary tactic by a media agent of the regime. Total BS.
      The US may not care about other people democracies; you got this possibly right. But, at least in their democracy, citizens maybe able to influence foreign policy to help prevent genocide. Let me see this in your Russia, China, or Syria. Go to hell!

      October 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
      • Dave Takaki

        The Syrian people will be free. Manshallah...

        October 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
      • Сирийская подлинного

        @ Ali Khader
        1. Syrian army is not strong??. I served in it too. you don't know what we have!! i know cause i had served in sensitive pleaces you shoudn't know about it
        2- Syria need 3 hour to terminate Israel
        3- 63 facing between F16 and mig33, the mig lose just one time, till now we dont speak about New Sukhoi
        4. my friend, definitely all wars about oil. Bosnia special case to beat yugoslavia and sieged Russia with rocket scute in Europe
        5. definitely Israel is afraid. cause the wars tactics are changed, for exam LIbanon war, Israel lose in this war
        6. 90% of Syrian being with the regime you must come and see that, look to the millions went out to the streets in Damascus to rally for Bashar Assad

        by way half world with Syria, China, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Iran, India, Ukraine, Lebanon, Cuba those are half people in the earth
        Half world with Bashar Alassad, and Syrian people with Bashar Alassad that is the truth

        October 13, 2011 at 3:00 am |
    • Dave Takaki

      Заткнись, иди на хуй

      October 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Dave Takaki

      Russia is a basic commodity producer with a shrinking population and visions of lost empire...Over the next five or six decades Chinese corporations will begin the commercial exploitation of the depopulating Russian Far East, providing jobs for Russians.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  5. Dave Takaki

    Syrian aircraft have yet to be employed in this suppression of the populace. Syrian air defense is centered on cities and not borders and is, on paper, a thicket of AD systems of different vintages, mostly Russian-Soviet. The Syrian AD has been spoofed in the past, but remains a serious threat to any NoFlyZone proposal. Any attempt to impose a NFZ will require serious SEAD assets. This alone limits the potential actors.

    What the Syrians are asking for will be of little utility; the unspoken intent might be to receive close air support for the Syrian Free Army, another kinetic action altogether...

    October 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  6. Simon Jones

    @Ali Khader – ur statement is completely wrong. 90% of the syrian population is with Bashar Al Assad and the syrian government. Can u explain why millions went out to the streets in Damascus to rally for Bashar Assad? Here is the video filmed yesterday in Damascus city
    Secondly, u state that the syrian army is not strong. The syrian army has hundreds of the latest anti aircraft missiles purchased from Russia. Syria is Russias largest buyer of weaponry and missiles

    Do not try and spread ur hatred and propaganda here. Syria is for all religions, and will not allow the Islamic extremist (muslim brotherhood- financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar) to step foot in our country

    October 12, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  7. Cantmakethisup

    We should implement a no wall street trade zone for these insider schemers b4 we loose the rest of our garnments.

    October 29, 2011 at 1:01 am |
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