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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Why a Syria Safe Zone Still Won’t Work or Protect Civilians

by Micah Zenko
February 5, 2016

Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on February 4, 2016. (Ismail/Reuters) Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on February 4, 2016. (Ismail/Reuters)


Respected former U.S. diplomats Nicholas Burns and James Jeffrey published a Washington Post op-ed today, calling on the U.S. military to lead the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. The authors propose, “to locate it over twenty-five to thirty miles south of the Turkish border….Its central purpose would be to help local forces drive out the Islamic State and to provide a haven for civilians until the war can be brought to a close.” Burns and Jeffrey further acknowledge some of the difficulties involved with their proposal, admitting that, “the United States would have to deploy U.S. soldiers on the ground inside Syria along the Turkish border in order to recruit the majority of the zone’s soldiers from Turkey and other NATO allies, as well as the Sunni Arab states.” This safe haven would be further protected by a no-fly zone operating primarily out of Turkish airbases.

This proposal deserves serious analysis and consideration. However, it is based upon a false claim repeated often by those endorsing interventions into the Syrian civil war: “It would restrict the operations of the rampaging Syrian air force—the largest killer of civilians in the conflict.” This is false, according to data compiled by the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a nongovernmental organization. The VDC determined that through mid-September 2015, there had been 85,404 civilians killed in the civil war: 28,277 by shootings and mass killings, 27,006 by mortar, artillery, and rocket attacks, and 18,866 by “Syrian Government Air Attacks.” As I wrote in 2013, any military intervention that claims to protect civilians from harm must be based upon how civilians are actually being harmed, not based upon the level of military commitment that can be supported by U.S. domestic politics. Actually protecting civilians from shootings and mortar attacks requires a level of cost, commitment, and risk that is presently unacceptable within the United States.

Moreover, even if the United States and some coalition of outside powers decided to protect civilians from the Syrian air force, a no-fly zone exclusively over northern Syria would not achieve this. Both Syrian and Russian air power is (indiscriminately) being used, overwhelmingly along a roughly north-south line running from Aleppo to the Damascus suburbs—territory that would be entirely unprotected from this hypothetical no-fly zone. In fact, according to the VDC, since September 2015, over one thousand civilians, including three hundred children, have been killed by Russian air strikes. Though there is no comparable data, Russia assuredly is killing more civilians with air power today than the Syrian regime.

Of course, the no-fly-zone could be extended to protect civilians in the areas where they are being killed, and against the actual perpetrators—i.e., Russia. But this would place the patrolling aircraft at far greater risk of being shot down by antiaircraft missiles, would routinely require that those aircraft operate in close proximity with Russian combat jets flying out of the Latakia Airport, and ultimately would mandate shooting down Russian aircraft that violate the expanded no-fly zone. In reality, the most likely outcome of any no-fly zone over northern Syria would be to further deepen the U.S. military commitment in Syria, and gradually expand the initial military objectives, as happened with no-fly zones in Iraq (regime change), Bosnia-Herzegovina (fifteen-day bombing campaign, plus British and French shelling of Bosnian Serbs leading to diplomatic settlement), and Libya (regime change).

One other claim that Burns and Jeffrey make is worth evaluating. They write that the safe zone “would also hinder the use of military power by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah against the resistance.” This could certainly be true for rebel groups operating out of the safe zone, assuming that the United States and coalition partners defend the rebels while they are within the safe zone. Of course, the unresolvable dilemma of declaring a safe zone for civilians to receive humanitarian assistance, and for armed rebel groups to operate out of, is that the safe zone would actually be a war zone. As we know from UN-declared safe zones in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in sub-Saharan Africa, combatants will use it to rest, recruit, and recover, thereby placing all civilians residing there at grave risk.

Humanitarian interventions that claim their objective is the protection of noncombatants should be based upon the realities on the ground. Moreover, they should not make harm to the noncombatants—who the intervention was intended to save in the first place—more likely. The real concern with Burns and Jeffrey’s ambitious proposal is that it neither reflects what is happening in Syria today, nor would likely reduce the overall level of violence (from all sources). Whether it would significantly increase the likelihood of a brokered diplomatic outcome that ends the brutal five-plus-year civil war is difficult to assess without clarifying information of who would participate, and how the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran would react.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Robert Collier

    Zenko’s comments are well-reasoned but delicately avoid a central fact: Any U.S. attempt to create a no-fly zone could escalate quickly in ways that should frighten any sane person. Russia clearly views Syria as a red line for its own national security, geopolitical interests and Putin’s own regime survival. Russia and Syria believe they have international law on their side and have made abundantly clear that they will police Syria’s air borders strictly against a no-fly zone. The Russian military position in Syria is strong, with top-of-the-line fighter jets and multiple layers of sophisticated air defense systems, and the U.S. could only prevail by launching a full-scale, “shock and awe” attack against Russian bases in Syria and ships in the Mediterranean – effectively a declaration of war against Russia. Would the U.S. take such risks, under the weak legal justification of R2P humanitarianism and without any Security Council mandate? Stripped of its ponderous, beard-stroking rhetoric, the Burns/Jeffrey proposal is reckless and wildly irresponsible.

  • Posted by Brian Connors

    You don’t need aircraft to enforce a no fly zone. You need only announce the area and the fact that a violation by the Syrian Government or any of the mercenary armies (doesn’t have to be put in such provocative terms) fighting on its behalf would result in cruise missile attacks against Syrian army, air force or government installations. It would be an act of war of course but then so is shooting down an airplane.

    The justification is that the humanitarian crisis is now a national security issue for the U.S. and its allies in the region and Europe (witness the refugee crisis). The tactic being used by Assad and his allies is to deliberately cause the civilian population to flee the country causing an enormous financial and security burden for the surrounding countries and Europe. I am sure the Russians are happy to see this as it helps to fracture European unity.

    Demand should also be made on the Russians, Iranians and Chinese to pay for the refugee crisis. The Chinese because of their vetos in the security council in many ways have lead directly to this civil war getting out of hand.

  • Posted by Francisco Correa

    All of the authors and comentators miss a crucial point: the Syrian war is not a civil-war. It’s a proxy war by foreign governments imposed on Syria with the cinic aim to topple Bashar Al-Assad for reasons other than humanitarian. Russia’s support of Assad is making possible a defeat of the mercenaries recrutied, trained, armed and paid by the US, NATO, KSA, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar,Kwait and other Gulf States and sent them to think on ways to turn the tide with military means disguised as humanitrian measures, as the ones proposed by Burns and Jeffrey. Turkey, KSA and Qatar seem to be so desperat that they may send troops to turn the tide. The question is if the US and NATO would be ready to take the risk to support these hot heads or if they will choose a compromise with Assad. As the saying goes: it’s better a bad compromise than a good judicial trial.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    The Burns-Jeffrey proposal is about three years too late, and does not deserve the time of day. I am puzzled as to why you think it deserves consideration. That said, I am also not in favor of using it as an excuse for doing nothing.

    The subject was confronted by Defense Secretary Carter in a hearing before Congress two months ago. He rendered the Obama administrations position on the subject. It is against having a No Fly Zone, because Russia might not like it. They might wish their planes to fly in our no fly zone. And then, we would have to decide whether that was OK with us. And we would not like to have to do that.

    So much for charades. The question is not whether we will have a no fly zone in Syria. The Russians have effectively already set one up that stretches from Tel Aviv almost to Ankara. They can enforce it at their discretion, depending on where the infraction occurs. So far as Syria is concerned, the question now is whether the US would have the temerity to violate Russia’s No Fly Zone. The answer given by our President is No.

    There are very few remaining options for the US to pursue any viable policy with respect to Syria, and the costs associated with them have risen greatly since the start of the civil war. It could still agree to support a Turkish ground offense against ISIS that would not pose a direct challenge to the Assad regime nor thus Russia, the aim of which would be to reverse these conditions by becoming a stakeholder in Syria. That would call the Kremlin’s bluff by very pointedly leaving it up to them to start a war with the NATO. (They of course can do so any time they want, and need no excuse such as defending Syrian territory seized by ISIS.) This would all the same require more nerve than has heretofore been displayed by our President. It is not likely the US will do anything in regard to Syria, for any reason, even if Turkey should go to war with Russia over it.

    In that case, we will run in the other direction, along with Europe. How embarrassed they will all be, however, when Turkey wins, as it will, unless Russia does start WWIII over Syria, for Russia’s military position in Syria is untenable in the face of forceful Turkish opposition.

    No fly zone, indeed. Aren’t you liking this situation more and more each day that the United States does nothing about it ? I understand both we and the Russians have been courting the Marxist-Terrorist Kurdish militia in northern Syria, to the consternation of President Erdogan and the Turks generally. It would seem we are about to trade NATO in for an alliance with Iran and Russia.

  • Posted by Robert Collier

    Inconvenient questions about no-fly zones:

    1) If Russian planes violate a U.S.-declared no-fly zone in Syrian airspace, should the U.S. attempt to shoot them down?
    2) If the Russians shoot down an American plane in a U.S.-declared no-fly zone, should the U.S. counterattack?
    3) Should the U.S. be willing to withstand heavy casualties in a “shock and awe” offensive against Russia’s well-defended bases in Syria and ships off the coast?
    4) If any of the above goes haywire, should the U.S. be willing to wage full-scale war against Russia?

    All Syria “experts” and armchair pundits should be required to answer these questions. If the answer to any of these is “yes,” I would question their sanity. If they refuse to answer the questions, I would question their honesty.

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