Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Strategic Horizons: For Syria No-Fly Zone, Less Is More

The previous post looked at the spectrum of options for grounding Syria’s air force, and focused on the benefits of a limited strike option. In July 2013 Steven Metz wrote an article on this topic in which he argued that much thinking about the requirements for establishing a no fly-zone reflects particular attitudes about the use of armed force developed by the U.S. military immediately after the end of the Cold War:
At the time, the U.S. military was so superior to all feasible opponents that it could assume outright domination of an operational area or even a domain of war like the sea, air or land. Today, military thinkers are beginning to realize that total domination might not be attainable or worth the cost under all circumstances. Instead, the application of power should reflect the intensity of American interests in a conflict and the opportunity costs. This means there will be times when the U.S. military will be used to deter or deny an enemy rather than for outright dominance, particularly when the interests involved are modest and the opportunity costs are high.

This type of thinking can be applied to a Syria no-fly zone. As Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War put it, “a no-fly zone is not a monolithic thing” but a spectrum ranging from expensive and difficult superiority to a gray area where the enemy’s ability to use air power is degraded rather than destroyed. If a few Syrian planes are downed either by land-based missiles or American fighters, then Assad and his generals may cut the number or type of missions they order, or Syrian pilots may find ways to avoid flying assigned missions. This would not be perfect or even decisive, but it could make a difference.

I recommend reading the entire article, Strategic Horizons: For Syria No-Fly Zone, Less Is More, by Steven Metz at World Politics Review.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

No-Fly Zone options: Reasons for favouring a limited strike option

Without a clear sense of how long the Syrian war might go on, and without clarity as to how Assad might be defeated or what kind of government might succeed him, there are strong reasons for caution about intervention. With America and Britain still militarily engaged in Afghanistan, and with no way of knowing what other threats might emerge elsewhere in the world before Syria’s war reaches an end, there are strong reasons for their reluctance to commit limited military resources to a no-fly zone.

Still the moral reality remains: a no-fly zone could save many lives. It’s likely over 10,000 of those killed in Syria have been victims of air attacks. So what options are available?

The phrase no-fly zone has been used for a spectrum of proposals for intervening in Syria. From the minimal to the maximal end these options are:

1 Arming rebels with anti-aircraft weapons. A variant on this is the idea of inserting covert special forces armed with anti-aircraft weapons.

2 Limited strikes on the Syrian Air Force launched outside Syria from beyond the range of Syria’s air defences.

3 Regular patrols of Syrian air space to force down Syrian aircraft. This would be preceded by a major attack on Syria's  air defence system and accompanied by a continuous effort to suppress Syria’s remaining air defences.

4 A Libya-like intervention, a mission to protect civilians and civilian areas by attacking Syria’s air defences, air force, and ground forces such as artillery and tanks, again with a continuous need to suppress remaining Syrian air defences. A variant on this is the idea of protecting defined safe areas against ground attack.

Of these, the minimal option 1, arming rebels with anti-aircraft weapons, seems least satisfactory. It has serious risks and the likely benefits are more limited than for other options. It would be impossible for an improvised guerilla ground force to match the firepower, mobility, and co-ordination of a modern NATO air force. The risk of unintended civilian casualties is likely also higher at the hands of an unprofessional guerilla force. This option also carries the nightmare risk of anti-aircraft weapons falling into the wrong hands and being used to attack a civilian airliner.

The variant of option 1, sending covert special forces into Syria with anti-aircraft weapons, has the same drawbacks but with the additional risk of the covert soldiers being captured or killed inside Syria and their identities exposed. Even without this, experience shows the impossibility of keeping such major covert efforts secret for very long.

That leaves options 2, 3, and 4: all overt interventions using air power against Syria’s military.

Any of these could be argued to be morally justifiable on the likely balance of lives saved versus lives lost, though the case is perhaps strongest for options 2 and 3 as limiting targeting to Syria’s air force and air defences would reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Option 4, striking Syrian ground forces as well as their air force, has the problem of uncertainty as to who would control the ground if the Syrian military are pushed back. Stopping short of striking ground forces might be seen as allowing a chance to gauge wider military and political effects of the intervention and to adjust accordingly.

Option 3, air patrolling a no-fly zone, is closest to the no-fly zones imposed over Iraq from 1991 to 2003. These had a mixed record of success. The Northern Watch no-fly zone established in 1991 was very effective in helping to allow Kurdish forces to defend northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s military, and made it possible for Kurds to establish a safe self-governed region.

The Southern Watch no-fly zone was established over a year later in 1992, after Saddam Hussein had already crushed the 1991 Shia uprising, killing, tens of thousands, some say hundreds of thousands, of people. As Saddam Hussein’s military controlled the ground by the time it was established, Southern Watch was unable to prevent further repression.

The long history of the Iraq no-fly zones shows that it is not inevitable for a no-fly zone to cause the downfall of a regime. An Iraq-type patrolled no-fly zone is therefore potentially a very costly open-ended commitment, tying up resources that might in future be wanted to face threats elsewhere in the world.

Option 2, limited strikes launched from outside Syrian air space, is far more economical than option 3, and doesn't tie up resources to the same degree. Rather than aiming to intercept every aircraft defying the no-fly zone by means of constant patrolling, option 2 aims to deter violations with the threat of retaliatory strikes, and to incapacitate the Syrian air force with these strikes. This would allow much more flexibility and economy in deploying forces to enforce the no-fly zone. And as these strikes could be launched without pilots coming in range of Syrian air defences, there would be no need to destroy those defences, thus reducing the risk both to the pilots and to civilians on the ground, as well as reducing the financial cost.

With lighter follow up strikes at regular intervals, this strategy could largely prevent the Syrian military from flying fixed wing aircraft, and could seriously disrupt resupply by air. Stopping helicopters from flying would be more demanding than stopping fixed wing planes. This approach would not stop attacks on civilians by artillery, or by tanks, or by snipers, though it might act as some deterrent if strikes were linked to threats to retaliate for any form of attack on civilians.

The term ‘red line’ has become a bad joke in relation to Syria after President Obama declared a vaguely defined red line against use of chemical weapons while failing to draw any kind of similar red line against other forms of mass slaughter of civilians. The term became further debased during the uncertain, compromised, response to confirmation that chemical weapons had been used against civilians. Nevertheless, a more robust red line ultimatum against conventional slaughter of civilians could be effective as part of option 2.

Despite the compromise and confusion, and hundreds killed in chemical attacks, Obama’s red line on chemical weapons did eventually lead to Syria agreeing to disarm without the US having to fire a shot. It’s just possible that a clearly defined red line could achieve a similar result on air attacks against civilians. In the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, a red line ultimatum citing the Syrian regime’s gross abuses and flouting of international humanitarian law could also serve to strengthen the legal, political, and moral case for action, prior to carrying out strikes.

A red line approach could begin with a short deadline ultimatum to the Syrian regime to stop aerial bombardment within, say, the next twelve hours, or face debilitating strikes against their air force.

If the regime failed to comply, air strikes against them would not only reduce their ability to bomb civilians and rebels, they would also interfere with their ability to resupply by air, and likely damage other military assets, weaken morale, and encourage defections. There would be some incentive then for the regime to comply to avoid strikes.

There is a question both moral and strategic to consider as to the exact demands that should be made in such an ultimatum. Should it be purely a demand to stop aerial bombing, or should it include demands to stop artillery shelling and other attacks on civilian areas? Should it include a demand to allow free access for humanitarian aid? There would be a degree of moral inconsistency in omitting some of these demands, but the greater the demands, the greater the likelihood that the regime would fail to comply and that the intervening powers would have to carry out their threat.

Finally, unlike a patrolled no-fly zone, this kind of limited strike on the Syrian air force would be within the capabilities of countries other than the United States, for example a coalition drawn from other permanent members of the UN Security Council, France and Britain, and neighbours of Syria, Turkey and Jordan.

Those with the capacity to act must not stand by: Syria still needs a no-fly zone.

On option 1:
For Syrians, a no-fly zone of their own, by David Axe, Reuters, 11 October 2013.

US Needs to Recalibrate Syria Strategy by Michael Wahid Hanna, The Boston Globe, 18 May 2013.

On option 2:
Required Sorties and Weapons to Degrade Syrian Air Force Excluding Integrated Air Defense System (IADS)
By Christopher Harmer, Senior Naval Analyst, Institute for the Study of War, 31 July 2013.

Strategic Horizons: For Syria No-Fly Zone, Less Is More
Steven Metz looks at limited-objective options for a no-fly zone, World Politics Review, 3 July 2013.

On options 3 and 4:
Denying Flight: Strategic Options for Employing No-Fly Zones
Paper by Karl P. Mueller, RAND Corporation, 2013 (PDF).

Airpower Options for Syria: Assessing Objectives and Missions for Aerial Intervention
by Karl P. Mueller, Jeffrey Martini, Thomas Hamilton, RAND Corporation, 2013.

More on the NFZ Reading List.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

“They can’t aim very well”

Last June, President Obama argued against a No–Fly Zone in the following terms:
Responding to calls to shut down Syria’s combat aircraft with American air power, Obama said “the fact of the matter is for example, 90 percent of the deaths that have taken place haven’t been because of air strikes by the Syrian air force.”
“Syrian Air Force isn’t particularly good. They can’t aim very well,” he said, adding that most of the action was taking place “on the ground.”
That’s from a June 17th 2013 report by Dan De Luce of AFP, here and here.

That same figure of 90% of opposition casualties not being caused by air strikes was also at the centre of Mark Thompson’s article of the same date for Time. It was attributed to Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Violations Documentations Centre in Syria lists 5,160 individuals killed specifically by aircraft up to June 17th 2013, the date of those articles.

Killed by an air force that “isn’t particularly good.”

Today the VDC’s total number of records of men, women, and children, killed by Assad’s air force has reached 7,510 individuals. By the time you click on this link it may be more. This is a minimum count of confirmed killings by aircraft. The actual number of people is likely over 10,000. Of whom at least 2,000 are children.

Killed by an air force that “can’t aim very well.”

Syria still needs a No-Fly Zone.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

NFZ reading list

• Syria casualty reports

Updated Statistical Analysis of Documentation of Killings in the Syrian Arab Republic
Commissioned by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,
report by Megan Price, Jeff Klingner, Anas Qtiesh, and Patrick Ball,
13 June 2013 (PDF).
This report presents findings integrated from seven databases built by Syrian human rights monitors and one database collected by the Syrian government. The databases collect information about conflict-related violent deaths—killings—that have been reported in the Syrian Arab Republic between March 2011 and April 2013.

Stolen Futures: The Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria
Oxford Research Group, 24 November 2013.

Violations Documentation Center in Syria

Anti-Assad monitoring group says Syrian death toll passes 130,000
Reuters, 31 December 2013.

• What is a No-Fly Zone?

What can it achieve? What does it require? What are its limitations and risks?

Denying Flight: Strategic Options for Employing No-Fly Zones
Paper by Karl P. Mueller, RAND Corporation, 2013 (PDF).
In the past two decades, the U.S. Air Force has participated in three contingencies involving NFZs over Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya, and NFZ proposals have been proffered for some time as an option for intervention in the Syrian civil war that would avoid placing Western troops on the ground. This paper is intended as a preliminary look at NFZs as a strategic approach in such situations, with an emphasis on the forms they might take, their potential utility, and their probable limitations.

Airpower Options for Syria: Assessing Objectives and Missions for Aerial Intervention
by Karl P. Mueller, Jeffrey Martini, Thomas Hamilton, RAND Corporation, 2013.
A detailed look at various possible air missions, their requirements, risks, effectiveness, and value.

A Syrian No Fly Zone: Options and Constraints
A discussion at the US Institute of Peace, 29 May 2013. The participants were Ambassador Frederic C. Hof, Lt. General David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.), Jon Alterman, and Joseph Holliday. Moderated by Steven Heydemann, USIP.

Potential No-Fly Zone Over Syria
Summary by Arvid Hallberg, European Parliamentary Research Service, 11 June 2013.

Strategic Horizons: For Syria No-Fly Zone, Less Is More
Steven Metz looks at limited-objective options for a no-fly zone, World Politics Review, 3 July 2013.

Required Sorties and Weapons to Degrade Syrian Air Force Excluding Integrated Air Defense System (IADS)
By Christopher Harmer, Senior Naval Analyst, Institute for the Study of War 31 July 2013 (PDF).
Analysis of a less than full no-fly zone option.

How much would a no-fly zone over Syria cost?
By Kevin Baron, Foreign Policy magazine, 7 May 2013.

CNN Fact Check: Comparing costs of Iraq, Libya missions
CNN Wire Staff, 23 October 2012.
NB While the Libya mission included a no-fly zone, it was intended from the start as a wider mission to protect civilians from ground attack as well as from air attack. This wider aim entailed greater cost and greater risk than would have been the case with a pure no-fly zone.

The Patriots are here, Now what?
Summary of a report by Shashank Joshi and Aaron Stein for RUSI, Turkey Wonk blog, 6 March 2013.
… the cost of using the Patriot Pac-3 missile for the establishment of a NFZ would be prohibitively expensive. A single Pac-3 costs between $3 and $4 million – an incredibly large sum when one considers that they will be targeting Soviet Era aircraft. Moreover, expending the finite number of missiles on aircraft would detract from the missile system’s primary purpose – defense against ballistic missile attack.
Not All Interventions In Syria Are Created Equal
Michael Koplow argues that Israeli air strikes against Syrian targets hold few lessons for a no-fly zone, Ottomans and Zionists blog, 6 May 2013.

The Art of SEAD: Lessons from Libya
By Maj Jeff Kassebaum, USAF, The Journal of Electronic Defense, December 2011.
While no NATO aircrew were lost in the Libya campaign, Maj Kassebaum argues that Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) could have been conducted better, and he highlights the regime’s use of civilian air traffic control equipment as part of their military’s Integrated Air Defense System (IADS).

Libya: The Forgotten Victims of NATO Strikes
Amnesty International, March 2012.

• International law

From the Rt Hon Hugh Robertson MP, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office: humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect
Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 14 January 2014 (PDF).
Minister of State Hugh Robertson has recently reaffirmed that under certain circumstances the UK Government regards humanitarian intervention as legal even without a UN Security Council resolution. Those circumstances were defined in a Foreign and Commonwealth Office note circulated to NATO allies in October 1998 prior to the Kosovo intervention. The text of the note was as follows:
Security Council authorisation to use force for humanitarian purposes is now widely accepted (Bosnia and Somalia provided firm legal precedents). A UNSCR would give a clear legal base for NATO action, as well as being politically desirable.

But force can also be justified on the grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity without a UNSCR. The following criteria would need to be applied:

(a) that there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
(b) that it is objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;
(c) that the proposed use of force is necessary and proportionate to the aim (the relief of humanitarian need) and is strictly limited in time and scope to this aim—ie it is the minimum necessary to achieve that end. It would also be necessary at the appropriate stages to assess the targets against this criterion.

Chemical weapon use by Syrian regime: UK government legal position
Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, 29 August 2013.
Note that aspects of this document go beyond the issue of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime.

Syria: military intervention – six key points from Amnesty International
By Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK, 28 August 2013.
See also Amnesty International Q & A, 29 August 2013 (PDF):
Amnesty International neither condemns nor condones such an armed international intervention. It also takes no position on the legality or moral basis for any such action. In situations of armed conflict, Amnesty International focuses on ensuring that warring parties respect international humanitarian law and human rights.

• Opinion and advocacy

Why There Will Be a No-Fly Zone in Syria
James Miller, Dissected News, writing for the Huffington Post, 2 December 2011

It’s Time to Think Seriously About Intervening in Syria
Steven A. Cook, The Atlantic, 17 January 2012.
… at what point in the body count is international intervention deemed to be an acceptably worthwhile option that can have a positive effect on the situation? After Assad has killed 6,000 people? 7,000? 10,000? 20,000?
Anti-Assad activist: “We need help… We need a no-fly zone… ASAP”
By Shamik Das, Left Foot Forward blog, 1 February 2012.

A Syrian no-fly zone is the moral and strategic thing to do
By Scott Cooper, The Washington Post, 6 April 2013.
Scott Cooper, a Marine aviator for 20 years, deployed five times to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan.
I spent a year and a half enforcing “no-fly” zones over Iraq and the Balkans. My experiences convinced me that the United States should declare and enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. We would do well to remember the era of no-fly zones and what they did and didn’t do.

Time for a Syrian No-Fly Zone
By Garvan Walshe, Conservative Home blog, 30 April 2013.

Want to stop Iran's takeover of Syria? Ground the Syrian Air Force.
Michael Weiss, Now Lebanon, 8 May 2013.

Syria: The Need for Decisive U.S. Action
By Anthony H. Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 14 June 2013.

How to Oust Assad, and Why the United States Should Try
Michael Weiss, Foreign Affairs, 28 August 2013.

A No-Fly Zone for Syria
Charles Tannock MEP, 30 August 2013.

Syria: Stopping the Carnage
By Frederic C. Hof, Atlantic Council, 18 December 2013.

• News reports

Syrian no-fly zone has Joe-mentum
By Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, 4 October 2011.

Dozens killed on Syrian ‘No-Fly Zone Friday’
By Abigail Fielding-Smith, Financial Times, 28 October 2011.

Syria protesters reportedly demand ‘no fly’ zone
By Alexandra Sandels and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, 28 October 2011.

Syria protesters call for no-fly zone
BBC News, 28 October 2011.

Syrian anger will echo down through the generations
Kim Sengupta, The Independent, 3 August 2012.
Reporting from Aleppo, an early account of air attacks deliberately targeting civilians.

Democratic foreign policy figures press for intervention in Syria
By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times, 10 August 2012.

Top Democrat endorses Syria no-fly zone
By Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, 19 March 2013.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) endorsed Tuesday the idea of establishing a no-fly zone inside Syria and attacking the air defenses and air power of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Ex-UN observer: ‘Level the playing field’ in Syria
Clip of Maj Gen Robert Mood, “time has come to consider a No-Fly Zone,” BBC News, 27 March 2013.

National Security Brief: Former Top U.N. Official Calls For No-Fly Zone In Syria
ThinkProgress, 28 March 2013.

The Thin Red Line: Inside the White House debate over Syria
By Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker, 13 May 2013.

Exclusive: Obama Asks Pentagon for Syria No-Fly Zone Plan
By Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, 28 May 2013.

Breedlove: No-fly zone over Syria would constitute ‘act of war’
John Vandiver talks to U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander Europe, Stars and Stripes, 31 May 2013.

Exclusive: Top Islamic Leader Calls for No-Fly Zone in Syria
Josh Rogin talks to Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the head of the 57-country Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), The Daily Beast, 4 June 2013.

Iraq No-Fly Zone viewed as symbol for one in Syria
By Lara Jakes, AP, 16 June 2013.
NB This story highlights the failure of the Southern Watch No-Fly Zone to prevent repression by Saddam Hussein of the predominantly Shia population of southern Iraq. Most curiously it fails to mention that this no-fly zone was imposed a year after the Shia uprising was crushed. It also fails to mention the more timely, and more successful, no-fly zone imposed a year earlier over predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq.

Obama skeptical on major military action in Syria
By Dan De Luce, AFP, 17 June 2013. Also here.

Syria refugees “begging” John Kerry for no-fly zone
AP/CBS News, 18 July 2013.

US 'will not intervene in Syria as rebels don't support interests', says top general
By Associated Press, 21 August 2013:
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Barack Obama's chief military adviser, said that the US military was capable of taking out the Syrian government's airforce and tipping the deepening struggle back in the favour of the country's opposition.

Turkey: Planned US Missile Strikes on Syria Not Good Enough
By Hurriyet Daily News, Reuters, Time, NATOSource blog, 31 August 2013.

For Syrians, a no-fly zone of their own
By David Axe, Reuters, 11 October 2013.

Syria: Dozens of Government Attacks in Aleppo
Human Rights Watch, 21 December 2013.

Syrian regime’s barrel bomb assault on Aleppo kills hundreds
By Richard Spencer, The Telegraph, 24 December 2013.

Assad forces press devastating assault on Aleppo
By Abigail Hauslohner and Ahmed Ramadan, Washington Post, 24 December 2013.

Syrian forces kill 25 in Aleppo barrel-bomb attack: activists
by Erika Solomon; Editing by Erica Billingham, Reuters, 28 December 2013.

Barrel bombs ‘kill 517 in Aleppo since 15 December’
BBC News, 29 December 2013.

Airstrike in Damascus
Reuters slideshow of 15 photographs by Bassam Khabieh, 7 January 2014.

The Fragility Of Syria In One Heartbreaking Photo
Michael Kelley, Business Insider, 8 January 2014.

Syria crisis: Russia blocks UN statement on Aleppo attacks
BBC News, 9 January 2014.

Monday, 6 January 2014

‘Happy ever after’ is not a realistic standard for any policy

My recent post, Syria (still) needs a No-Fly Zone, has been republished at Left Foot Forward where it has attracted a few comments, which is gratifying even if they were all in disagreement with the argument. Below is a very slightly edited version of my responses to comments so far.