Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Syria No-Fly Zone: Realistic Objectives

by Micah Zenko
October 31, 2011

A Syrian shouts slogans during protest against government of Syria's President Assad (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters).

A Syrian shouts slogans during protest against government of Syria's President Assad (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters).

Last week, Syrian opposition activists agreed on the theme of their customary end-of-week protests: “No-Fly Zone Friday.” However, protests on the streets throughout Syria were less clear-cut in their demands. Protestors in Homs shouted to the international community, “God, Syria, we want a no-fly zone,” while others in Damascus chanted, “people want a ban on flying.” Some signs in Homs read, “A no-fly zone is a legitimate demand for Homs,” or simply depicted the universal symbol of a plane within a circle, slashed through by a red line.

On No-Fly Zone Friday, government security forces killed approximately forty-four anti-regime protestors, the most in a single day since May 6, 2011. According to United Nations estimates, well over 3,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March. Notably, none of the nonviolent protestors were killed or injured by airpower.

The escalating demands for an international no-fly zone (NFZ) over Syria is puzzling, since, as I pointed out in an earlier piece, it would do nothing to protect civilians who are dying in cities by soldiers on the ground, tanks, short-range artillery, and snipers.

However, recent statements from anti-regime groups have provided further insight into what they believe a NFZ could achieve in Syria. Notably, these include many second-order effects, unrelated to the specific military mission of a NFZ: the prohibition of aircraft over a specified geographic area.

- The Syrian Revolution 2011 opposition group, stated on its Facebook page: “We call on the international community to impose a no-fly zone so that the Syrian Free Army can function with greater freedom.”

- Malik al-Abdeh, a London-based opposition figure, added, “People want at the very least some kind of no-fly zone that legitimizes an armed uprising against Bashar, or maybe some other kind of intervention that will encourage people in the regime to jump ship.

- Salih al-Hamawi of the General Commission for the Syrian Revolution, told Al Jazeera: “We ask the international community to fulfill our right to enforce the law that was implemented in Libya two weeks after the revolution broke out…we call for implementing the international law. If the international law stipulates a no-fly zone, we want that.”

- Muhammad Sarmini of the Syrian National Council, told Al-Sharq al-Awsat, “the main aim from calling for a no fly zone is to secure protection for the civilians after it has been proved that the regime is using warplanes to suppress the demonstrators.” (To repeat, there is no evidence that Syria’s warplanes have been used in this manner. There have been fewer than a handful of instances where helicopter gunships were used against civilian protestors.) Sarmini went further, adding: “imposing a no fly zone will have several benefits, in terms of blockading the regime and restricting its movements…It will provide a safe opportunity for more defections in several army branches, particularly as we have received information that many members want to defect but fear their positions would be bombarded by aircraft.”

In summary, according to anti-regime activists, a NFZ over Syria would protect the armed opposition groups; provide international legitimacy for an armed uprising; encourage defections from regime security forces; and fulfill the international community’s responsibility, since Libyan anti-regime were extended a NFZ.

It is highly unlikely that all, if any, of these objectives would be met by an internationally mandated NFZ over Syria. Indeed, these objectives would certainly require a much larger commitment of military force, including air strikes and the associated forward air controllers that are required to guide the bombs.

Beyond Syria, anti-regime groups in Darfur, South Sudan, Somalia, and Libya have demanded NFZs from the international community because they appeal to multiple audiences. The intervening force—billed initially at low costs—can attempt to coerce a targeted regime to change its behavior with the threat of escalation. Meanwhile, opposition groups can maintain ownership of the resistance by claiming that they oppose foreign military intervention in the form of boots on the ground.

Despite the rising death toll, it is unlikely that the international community will intervene militarily in Syria. Earlier today, while travelling to Tripoli, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was asked if the alliance would lead a NFZ over Syria. He replied: ”It’s totally ruled out. We have no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria.” Thus, for now the demands of protestors will be ignored. But, given how quickly things could change, the international community should think through the operational requirements and realistic objectives of a NFZ over Syria.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Dave Takaki

    Turkey appears to be firming up its options regarding intervention in Syria. It is clear that the US will be involved in supporting Turkey in this. More than likely US and or NATO airborne assets (don’t forget Turkey is a NATO member) will operate out of Incirlik AB.

    Just a partial list of recent FSA skirmishes with the Syrian Army:

    Al Rastan – 27 September 2011
    Al Harra – 13 October
    Binish – 13 October
    Al-Qusayr – 17 October
    Hass – 17 October
    Jabal al-Zawiya region, near Hass – 17 October
    Burhaniya – 20 October
    Maarat al-Numaan – 25 October
    Hamrat – 26 October
    Between Al-Habit & Kafrnabuda – 29 October

    If the Syrian conflict continues into revolution/civil war there will be pressure to create a no go zone for the Free Syrian Army to organize and establish a command, control and logistics area to support in-country resistance. Attached are photos of region in NW hard by the Turkish border that has been mentioned as a possible NW sanctuary for FSA. A note regarding the proposed NW sanctuaries Jisr al-Shughour and Jebel Zawiya: both areas have been assaulted by Syrian Army and militia, this year, and in the past. A massacre at Jisr al-Shughour occurred in 1980 when about 200 were massacred, and in June of this year about 35 people were again killed in Jisr al-Shughour. One could gather that people in Jisr al-Shughour are not fond of the Assad regime.

    The Syrian Army feels free to enter Lebanon at will, and has begun mining frontier. At some point it is likely that deserters or FSA soldiers will ambush a Syrian unit since so far incursions into Lebanon have been company size or smaller. Syrian blowback may be very nasty, but Lebanese handwringing won’t change things. Lebanon will experience another round of instability as the conflict spills over with greater frequency so the last thing they need is for Hezbollah to step in on Syria’s side.

    Jordan is also not safe from Syrian incursions, but strong anti Assad demonstrations have taken place in the south near the Jordanian border, and the FSA has struck Syrian convoys on roads in the region. This would be along the Jordanian border from Daraa and swinging in an easterly arc.

    Turkey would prevail militarily against Syria, but there are many reasons for not sponsoring safe areas along the South Eastern Turkish border, not least that Turkey’s SE is a hotbed of PKK activity. This region where Turkey, Syria, and Iraq share Kurdish populations and is an active area of operations for the Turkish military, including convoy supported incursions into Iraq. More Turkish military anti-PKK activity occurs farther east near to the Iranian border. Currently, Turkey has tacit consent from the peshmerga and Iraq Kurdish Government to attack the PKK as long as their cross border ops do not endanger Iraqi civilians.

    Iraqi Peshmerga will probably not get involved in Syria’s impending conflict, save perhaps, not putting a lot of effort into stopping Syrian deserters or FSA from crossing into Iraq or returning to Syria with resupply. If the Assad regime continues to hit Kurdish demonstrators in the east, or at a later stage in the conflict when the regime loses the initiative and begins its descent, then the peshmerga with coordination with the Turkish military, might get kinetic.

    Kurdish activists indicate members of the 11 unofficial Kurdish political parties have met with Syrian Kurdish activists from the Local Coordination Committee, an alliance for young protest organizers, to plan for a post-Assad period. These Kurdish parties plan to name a special committee and hold a conference in Syria within the next few weeks. They are unrelated to the Syrian National Council, the country’s largest opposition group, based in Istanbul.

    “If the [Assad] regime is gone, it will offer an opportunity for the Kurds to push forward for autonomy, and of course they will try,” said Joost Hiltermann, an expert on Kurds and deputy program director of Middle East for the International Crisis Group. In September, about 50 Syrian Kurds held a conference in Stockholm, issuing a statement, “The Syrian revolution will not be complete without a just solution to the Kurdish cause.”

    Iraq has depth, and has Sunni and Kurdish populations along Syria’s NE region that share ties with Syrian Sunni or recent Kurdish migrations into Syria. The Syrian-Iraqi frontier is porous.

    You can see the areas of SE Turkey that are the Turkish military’s areas of concern and frankly, operations. The “NE Horn” of Syria is a possible insurgency area w/o Turkish oversight. To some extent, a NGZ here will be dependent on what cross border intelligence Syria is able to develop for interdiction. Iraq’s NW quarter is sprinkled with Turkmen, Sunni, and Kurd villages, and w/o intelligence, would be a blank to the Syrian military. The Iraqi-Syrian border is more porous than when US troops were attempting to seal it off from war materiel and suicide bombers infiltrating from Syria.

    With Turkish help, No Go Zones are likely to be established further west, away from PKK activity along Syria’s northeastern frontier. Areas in Syria’s NW have already been suggested by the FSA to the Turkish military. Syria’s eastern reaches could possibly become insurgent rear areas beyond Turkey’s ability to control. This may or may not prove to be a critical distinction, depending on how this incipient conflict unfolds.

    Jordan’s King Abdullah has been briefed by Turkish FM Davutoglu and is waiting for someone else to do something. Lebanon is collectively hoping nothing (much) happens to them while it’s clear that the power balance inside Lebanon will change with the conflict next door in Syria.

    If Turkey does decide to establish a NFZ, it still needs airborne AEW support since it won’t receive its own aircraft from Boeing until late next year. It it comes to this, US will probably deploy AEW aircraft to Incirlik AFB, closer to the Med coast, to support a Turkish umbrella over southern Turkey and a SEAD imposed over the border. It is possible aircraft with synthetic aperture side scanning down look radar could also receive air tasking orders to look over the border into Syria and observe troop vehicle movement for the FSA. Most of this would be done quietly out of Incirlik AB.

    Note: US drones are already deploying to Turkey from Iraq to assist in anti-PKK surveillance. So they will be potentially “in-theatre” as this inexorable conflict spins up into war.

  • Posted by American Syrian

    We should not be a hypocrticial world. We should grant all those who desire it, an opportunity to fight and defend what is a grossly negligent and criminal government in Syria. The Asad regime is no longer fit to govern Syria, has lost all control of everything within the Syrian borders, and those who desire to see a better future for Syria should be afforded the aid necessary to remove Asad and his criminal gang by force. What double standard are the world leaders using to change their stance on intervention in Syria? Empty threats against Israel from Bashar the UK educated Ophthalmologist? Lets get real boys. Free Syria.

  • Posted by Ahmad Cyprus

    Well, NATO is awaiting the final confirmation from Qatar and the Arab Gulf countries on who will cover the bill of toppling Assad’s regime

    Hint for the NATO: Assad’s wealth amounts to US$30bn we promise to pay it once we get our money back, Now please do something to put an end to the violence

  • Posted by Paul Smyth

    “But, given how quickly things could change, the international community should think through the operational requirements and realistic objectives of a NFZ over Syria.”

    If they do they should quickly realise that realistic objectives will not stop the regime killing civilians, because the operational requirements for an effective intervention (which would not be limited to a NFZ) cannot be met.

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