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)
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.