Monday, 8 December 2014

Deter and Retaliate


The week from Sunday 30th November to Sunday 7th December started with a lot of words published on the possibility of a no-fly zone in Syria, and ended with a practical demonstration of the feasibility of imposing one. It began with three news stories, all based on leaks or off-record conversations by US officials about ongoing negotiations between retired Marine Gen. John Allen, US special presidential envoy, and Turkish officials on the possibility of establishing a ‘safe zone’ in Northern Syria where civilians and rebels would have a degree of protection from both Assad forces and ISIS.
All three stories noted that a proposal had been brought to President Obama, but that no decision had yet been made. That these leaks may have been made by officials hoping to pressure the administration’s leadership into moving forward on the plan seemed confirmed by the push-back response to the stories:
  • Colonel Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesperson, 1st December:
    “Right now, we don’t believe a buffer zone is the best way to relieve the humanitarian crisis there in northern Syria.”

  • Josh Earnest, White House spokesperson, 1st December:
    “… At this point, we don’t believe that a no-fly zone fits the bill here.”

  • Susan Rice, National Security Advisor to President Obama, 2nd December:
    “We are not moving in the direction of a no-fly zone or a safe haven at this point,” and “We think the establishment of a no-fly zone or a safe zone, at this point, is at best premature, and would be a major investment of resources that would be something, frankly, of a diversion from the primary task at hand.”

In contrast, Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State under Obama and likely Presidential candidate for 2016, seemed to be in support of the proposal, and The Washington Post published an editorial arguing in its favour. At a Brussels conference on fighting ISIS, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu continued to maintain that the proposal was gaining understanding in the US.

And then on Sunday the 7th of December Israel again demonstrated how vulnerable the Assad regime is to air attack by carrying out daylight strikes on the outskirts of Damascus.


Worth noting in the three initial news reports about safe zone negotiations is that the plan they describe envisages a no-fly zone maintained by deterrence and retaliation rather than by either air patrol and interception as seen in Bosnia and Iraq in the 1990s, or eradication of regime air assets as seen in Libya in 2011. From the Wall Street Journal version:
In contrast to a formal no-fly zone, the narrower safe zone along the border under discussion wouldn’t require any strikes to take out Syrian air defenses. Instead, the U.S. and its coalition partners could send a quiet warning to the Assad regime to stay away from the zone or risk retaliation.

While there’s an implication in the article that a Deter and Retaliate approach can only work for a limited scale no-fly zone, recent events in Syria suggest that it would work for a no-fly zone over the entire country. Three experiences point to Assad being susceptible to deterrence: his agreement to allow the removal of chemical weapons following the threat of military action; the lack of any military response by Assad to US-led forces carrying out strikes in Syrian territory; and the lack of any direct military response by Assad to Israel’s repeated strikes against his military. Assad clearly knows he is unlikely to survive a direct military conflict with the US or its allies, and will go as far as possible to avoid one. As to retaliation, yesterday’s daylight strikes by Israel against Assad’s military in the Damascus area once again make clear that it is well within the means of the US and its allies to retaliate should Assad defy a no-fly zone.

Finally, how would a Deter and Retaliate no-fly zone work, and why might it be preferable to a patrolled no-fly zone, or to eradicating Assad’s air force?

The US and its allies already have the means to monitor Syrian territory to detect air attacks, and have the means available to retaliate in the event of any attacks taking place, so the next step would be to demand an immediate end to air attacks by Assad’s air force, and declare that any further attacks will be met with a punitive military response. There is a good chance the Assad regime would comply fully with this demand in order not to risk being hit by US strikes. If however the Assad regime decided to test US resolve by carrying out one or more air attacks, the US and its allies would not seek to intercept the particular aircraft violating the no-fly zone; instead they would first verify that an attack had taken place, and then respond with an attack against a target of their choice, for example Assad aircraft on the ground or other similar military targets.

There are major advantages in this Deter and Retaliate approach compared to patrols or eradication. Not engaging in patrolling or interception is safer for air crews. Avoiding the wide-scale strikes needed to eradicate Assad’s air force lowers the risk of unintended civilian casualties as well as lowering risk to air crews. And of course avoiding patrols and wide-scale strikes also makes Deter and Retaliate cheaper. It could cost as little as a phone call.

There would be three justifications for declaring such a no-fly zone. One, as with earlier chemical attacks by Assad forces, the regime’s deliberate targeting of civilian areas blatantly contravenes established international humanitarian law. Two, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, passed in February, demanded an end to such attacks. Three, such attacks hamper efforts by the US and its allies to combat ISIS.


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