Prospects for Syrian No-fly Zone Assessed at USIP

May 30, 2013

USIP gathered specialists on the Syrian civil war to consider the requirements and challenges of establishing a proposed no-fly zone to protect civilians and weaken Syrian military capabilities.

The military, diplomatic and humanitarian dimensions and challenges of a contemplated no-fly zone (NFZ) over Syria were examined by a panel of specialists appearing at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on May 29.

USIP takes no position on an NFZ. But the issue and its many complexities need more serious examination and discussion, and there could be “consequences if we fail to give this option all due consideration,” said Steven Heydemann, USIP’s senior advisor for Middle East initiatives. With the United Nations projecting that half of Syria’s population might need international assistance by the end of this year, a NFZ “might be an effective instrument to ensure vulnerable populations receive the assistance they need,” he said.

Unofficial proposals for the United States and allies to establish a NFZ have been receiving greater attention as the Syrian civil war moves into its third year, with mounting civilian casualties and the deepening involvement of countries in the region. More than 80,000 Syrians are now believed to have perished and 1.5 million have fled to other countries, according to the U.N. Iran and the Lebanon-based Shiite militant group Hezbollah are ramping up support for the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, and mostly Sunni Syrian rebels are believed to have fired missiles into Hezbollah areas of Lebanon in recent days. The increasingly sectarian character of the Syrian struggle is raising concerns about a destabilizing spillover into Iraq as well as Lebanon.

At the same time, diplomatic moves on the Syrian civil war are intensifying. The Obama administration, with Russia, is trying to organize an international peace conference in Geneva next month. U.S. officials say they are trying to change Assad’s calculation about his ability to hang on to power, and they aim to galvanize negotiations that lead to a transition of power to a democratic Syrian government. But Russia, a longtime Assad ally, says that it will proceed with deliveries of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and remains adamantly opposed to foreign intervention. At the same time, the European Union decided this week to allow an arms embargo on the Syrian rebels to lapse, albeit with no immediate plans to arm them.

With the issue of a no-fly zone gaining urgency, Heydemann said, questions about possible military requirements as well as diplomatic and political constraints need to be addressed. The panelists at USIP delved into several such questions.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant General David A. Deptula said that in contemplating a NFZ, it is critical to identify which U.S. national security interests are at stake and what the desired “end-state” of an operation would be with respect to questions like the protection of civilians, Assad’s status and the supply “bridge” between allies Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Deptula, who once commanded Operation Northern Watch over the mostly Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, cautioned about what a NFZ can achieve by itself. “It’s not a strategy. It’s not a silver-bullet solution,” he said. “It’s not cheap and it’s not risk-free.”

A successful NFZ needs not only clear objectives but also clear and concise rules of engagement, as well as basing rights for the enforcing aircraft and personnel, Deptula said. Similarly, decisions about whether to target Syrian leadership and active military units (tactics employed in the Libyan NFZ prior to the fall of the Qaddafi regime) would need to be answered, he said. Compared to the earlier Iraqi NFZ, one over Syria would encounter more serious challenges, he said. Those factors include: ongoing hostilities even without U.S. intervention; a significantly more robust air defense; the active support for Assad from Russia (unlike the isolation of Saddam Hussein); and the near-certain lack of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a NFZ.

Joseph Holliday, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War who is researching the Syrian crisis, said that Syria has purchased more than 600 military aircraft in the last 40 years, with about 200 of them currently combat-capable. He said the Syrian regime appears to be holding its more modern MIG-25 and MIG-29 fighters in reserve for a response to any foreign intervention. Even so, Syrian government air strikes on rebel and civilian locations are running at a faster pace this year than last year, with a peak so far of more than 140 air strikes in February. The Syrian Air Force is “not on its way out,” Holliday said, and Syria retains “one of the densest air-defense systems in the world,” including some 650 stationary SAM (surface-to-air missile) anti-aircraft sites and 300 mobile anti-aircraft platforms.

Holliday emphasized the spectrum of military options encompassed by a NFZ—from a full-scale air campaign to considerably more restrictive campaigns. “A no-fly zone is not a monolithic thing,” he said.

Above all, in considering a NFZ, it is essential “to know our own mind” about what is to be accomplished, said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Hof had earlier served with the rank of ambassador as the U.S. special advisor for transition in Syria.

Key issues, including the protection of Syrian civilians, the capabilities of the Syrian military and the future of the Assad regime, “all come together under the broad rubric of ‘no-flight zone’,” said Hof. He said, however, that term “really doesn’t account for the variety of options available” for tailoring a military response to the Syrian civil war.

To prevent “mission creep,” he said, specific mission goals should be spelled out. He also said that a presidential decision in favor of a NFZ, in consultation with Congress, represents a decision to “go to war….There is no point in sugarcoating what is involved here.” He dismissed what he said were notions of simply declaring a NFZ, calling them “a paper blockade” and insufficient to deter the Syrian regime.

Further, enforcing a NFZ does not necessarily lead to the demise of the Assad regime, particularly with the strong backing it has from Iran and Hezbollah, Hof said. “This is a war Iran and Hezbollah have decided not to lose,” he said. “We are not yet seeing this level of resolve on the part of the administration….The administration is not at present committed to a rebel military victory.”

Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Security and a former State Department official, noted that a NFZ has been discussed throughout the Syrian conflict, but “it keeps not happening.” He said that Washington’s Arab allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council favor a NFZ for both humanitarian reasons and in the hope of committing the United States more fully to the defeat of the Syrian regime, which they see as a “proxy for Iranian interests.” Turkey also backs a NFZ, he said.

Alterman said that the Syrian military is unlikely to be able to mount a conventional military response to a NFZ, but along with Iran it has “political cards to play” to try to undermine political support for such an operation. For its part, he said, the United States needs to be clear about its core strategic interests that are at risk in Syria, including the country becoming “a magnet for extremism across the region.”

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