Sunday, 26 July 2015

A limited No-Fly Zone won’t stop Assad’s bombs

Turkish media have claimed that a geographically limited no-fly zone will be enforced as part of their cooperation agreement with the US on Syria. US officials have denied this. But even if it’s true, it may not be such good news. If it happens, Assad will still have the same number of aircraft; he will still have the same number of bombs to drop.

A geographically limited no-fly zone will only concentrate Assad’s bombing, not stop it.


Turkey carries out strikes in Syria, The Guardian, 24 July 2015.

US State Department press briefing, 24 July 2015.
“Is it fair to describe what’s happening as a no-fly zone?”
“No… I wouldn’t—I just wouldn’t term it that.”
No-Go for Syrian No-Fly Zones, Says State, by Michael Weiss, 24 July 2015.
What accounts for the contradictory messaging by the two largest NATO members? “[The Turks] could be negotiating through the media,” one U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast. “We have seen them do that before.”
Earlier post: A critical response to calls for a geographically-limited No-Fly Zone, 28 April 2015.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Nicholas Burns and David Miliband on a No-Fly Zone for Syria

In a recent article for the Washington Post, Nicholas Burns and David Miliband composed a four-point call to action on Syria. Point three concerned humanitarian relief for Syrians still inside the country, and the need for enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions, particularly Resolution 2139.

As part of that, they had this to say about no-fly zones:
The debate about a no-fly zone across Syria to protect civilians from the Assad government’s deadly “barrel bombs” needs to move from slogans to details. Such zones can offer real protection (as was the case with the Iraqi Kurds in the 1990s), but a decision cannot be divorced from the wider imperative for progress toward a political settlement in Syria.
For most of us long engaged in the debate on no-fly zones, details of implementation have been part of the discussion for a very long time. To be clear, I favour the following ‘deter and retaliate’ approach:

Unlike the 1990s no-fly zones in Bosnia Herzegovina and Iraq, a ‘deter and retaliate’ no-fly zone would not necessitate regular patrols within Syrian air space. Instead it would require issuing a clear ultimatum to the Assad regime to stop bombing, and then responding to any further regime bombing by strikes against regime air bases rather than by trying to intercept the violating aircraft. Missile strikes against regime air bases would be cheaper and safer—both for civilians on the ground and for the enforcing military’s personnel—than a patrolled no-fly zone as they wouldn’t require the destruction of Assad’s remaining air defences.

In order to avoid merely displacing Assad’s bombing campaign from one part of Syria to another, the prohibition must be Syria-wide. A no-fly zone based on a deter and retaliate strategy rather than on air patrols could just as easily be imposed over all of Syria as over a limited part.

Implementing a deter and retaliate strategy without sending pilots into Syrian air space requires weapons such as sea launched cruise missiles and air launched stand-off weapons, systems that are in the arsenals of the UK and France as well as the US. Any of these P3 countries have the military capacity and expertise needed to enforce an end to Assad’s bombing of civilians.

Links to some of the long history of public discussion of details on how to implement a no-fly zone are included at the end of this article.

The second part of the Burns and Miliband paragraph, relating a no-fly zone to a political settlement, needs careful consideration. The Planet Syria campaign of Syrian civil society groups pairs its call for action to end Assad’s air attacks with a call for inclusive talks on a political transition. Here are their two demands from earlier this year:


Extremism breeds from injustice—the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today is the ‘barrel bomb’. These are often old oil barrels filled with explosive and scrap metal and rolled out of government helicopters and planes miles up in the air onto hospitals, schools and homes.

The UN Security Council unanimously banned them a year ago. Nothing has changed since then—nearly 2,000 children have been killed since UN Resolution 2139 was signed on February 22, 2014.

Many of us were against foreign military intervention in Syria. But in September 2014 the US-led coalition started bombing ISIS in our country. Now there is a deep hypocrisy to letting the Assad regime fly in the same airspace and kill civilians. Many more than are killed by ISIS.

The international community must follow through on its demands and stop the regime’s barrel bombs and air attacks - even if that means with a ‘no fly zone’.


There is no military solution to the conflict in Syria.

We need real peace talks to include all Syrian parties with the strong support of the international community.

No one side can unite Syria. It will require compromises from everyone involved and new leaders to build the future. Slowly, with the support of our real allies, we hope to reconnect with the tolerance and coexistence we have known for millennia and build a Syria better than before.

The first public step in imposing a no-fly zone is to issue a final demand that Assad forces stop bombing. That demand can be accompanied by a parallel invitation to all appropriate parties to inclusive talks. What must NOT happen is for imposition of a no-fly zone to be made conditional on political progress.

We have in the last week marked the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, a disaster in great part the result of Western governments pulling back on civilian protection in the hope of first making political progress. This terrible error allowed Serb forces to make their own preparations for an eventual political settlement by creating ‘facts on the ground’ through massacre and displacement of civilians. It was only when NATO eventually proceeded with military enforcement that conditions for a political settlement at last came about, and even then it was a settlement that rewarded ethnic cleansing and locked-in sectarian politics into the resulting political system.

Western governments, led by the US, have been repeating the mistakes of the Bosnian war on an even greater scale in Syria. It is well past time for them to understand that civilian protection must come first, as a matter of humanity, and also in order to create the conditions for a lasting political settlement.


Syrian No-Fly Zone: From Slogans to Details: A response by Frederic C Hof to Nicholas Burns and David Miliband’s article.


Never again, and again, and again: On Bosnia and Syria. July 2015.

Deter and Retaliate: On buffer zones, safe zones, and air exclusion zones. December 2014.

Stop the barrel bombs: A moral and legal responsibility to use force: On the morality, legality, and practicality of intervention, and responsibility to act. April 2014.

Strategic Horizons: For Syria No-Fly Zone, Less Is More: On the spectrum of no-fly zone options. January 2014.

No-Fly Zone options: Reasons for favouring a limited strike option. January 2014.

NFZ reading list. Reporting, analysis, and advocacy, from 2011 to early 2014.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Never again, and again, and again

Reckless Diplomacy Disguised as Caution Cost Lives in Srebrenica. And It’s Happening Again, This Time in Syria

Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations joined with Najib Ghadbian, Special Representative to US and UN, National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces to write this comparison of two avoidable man-made disasters.
“As Bosnia & Herzegovina’s first Ambassador to the UN and the Syrian opposition’s first Ambassador to the UN, we are struck by the painful parallels between our two conflicts, and how indecision and a lack of moral courage are once again leaving innocent civilians to pay the ultimate price.”
Sacirbey and Ghadbian argue that although a no-fly zone in Syria lacks the wide support given to the no-fly zone in Bosnia, it would be even more effective in saving lives, it would counter extremism, and it would make a political solution more possible. Read the rest.

From an interview with Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and former U.N. humanitarian chief, at Syria Deeply:
“We have Srebrenica happening every few months in Syria in terms of civilians killed and maimed.”
Read the rest: Jan Egeland: It’s Time to Change the Narrative for Syria’s Refugees.

James Bloodworth also writes of UK complicity with the Srebrenica massacre, and compares it with Syria.

For more detail on how British, French, and US government decisions helped pave the way for the Srebrenica massacre, see How Britain and the US decided to abandon Srebrenica to its fate, by Florence Hartmann and Ed Vulliamy.

As it was in Bosnia, so also in Syria it is within the power of the UK, France, and the US, acting singly or together, to stop much of the killing.

The single greatest culprit in the killing of civilians is the Syrian Air Force.

Chart from Violations Documentation Center in Syria report for May 2015. More details.

Last month, 81 NGOs called on the UN Security Council to enforce its own Resolution 2139 to end the barrel bombing. Realistically, this won’t happen by collective Security Council action. Russia has blocked any effective Security Council measure, including blocking a resolution to give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction in Syria. This week Russia even blocked a resolution recognising the Srebrenica massacre as an act of genocide.

On Syria, as on Kosovo, in the absence of Security Council unanimity, individual Security Council member states must act.

Assad’s barrel bombings kill mostly civilians, and mostly in areas not held by ISIS but held by the Syrian rebels who are fighting both Assad and ISIS.

Assad’s air attacks have actually been helping ISIS attack Syrian rebels.

As the greatest danger to civilians, Assad’s air attacks are the greatest driver of refugee flows. The number of refugees has more than doubled since the UK, France, and US, turned away from military intervention in 2013.

Aid for Syria is becoming the most expensive sticking plaster in history, costing billions and still woefully underfunded. The need will not end until the violence is stopped, and the violence is mostly Assad’s.

If you are in the UK, write to your MP here.

If you are in the US, write to Congress here.

Download and share Syria Solidarity UK’s document: Ongoing chemical weapons attacks and bombing of civilians by the Syrian Air Force: A call for action (PDF)