What We Really Mean When We Talk About a Syrian No-Fly Zone

Syrian activists are increasingly calling for some kind of outside military support, but what are they really asking for and what would it do?

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A tank is seen at an army checkpoint at a square in Hula near Homs / Reuters

In mid-August, talk show host Stephen Colbert asked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice why the United States had not intervened to save the lives of Syrians as it had in Libya. Ambassador Rice replied that Syrian opposition members had told U.S. diplomats, "What they want from the United States is more leadership, political pressure, and sanctions, but very clearly no military intervention."


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Since then, opposition forces who seek the fall of the Bashar al Assad regime have increased their demands for an international military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone (NFZ) over all or parts of Syria. However, as was true in Libya, the military mission that is actually required is one of close air support. It is important for the international community to correctly assess the situation on the ground and understand the distinctions between NFZs and close air support before exploring the use of military force in Syria.

Three things have happened in Syria in the past few months that explain the increased demands for a NFZ intervention:

First, the use of violent repression by state security forces against overwhelmingly unarmed protestors has continued unabated. According to the United Nations, from mid-August to last Thursday, October 6, the estimated number of civilian casualties has increased, from 2,200 to over 2,900. In addition, opposition forces have faced arbitrary arrests, detentions, and systematic torture, while political activists living abroad have been monitored and harassed by Syrian intelligence agents operating out of diplomatic outposts.

Second, political condemnation and economic sanctions have not compelled the Assad regime to stop its brutal crackdown. World leaders have condemned the regime's systemic human rights abuses, and have called for Assad to step down from power. The United States has imposed three sets of economic sanctions--April 29, May 18, and August 17--against specific Assad regime officials and the Syrian government, and other countries have followed suit. However, as the Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council three weeks ago, the Syrian regime "appears determined to pursue its policy of violent repression despite international and regional calls to change course."

Third, the previously disparate opposition groups have coalesced around the unifying message of regime change. On October 2, the formation of the Syrian National Council (SNC) was announced in Istanbul, which will reportedly include a twenty-nine person general secretariat representing the seven largest Syrian opposition factions.  Following the model of the Libyan Transitional National Council, the SNC has created a website that lists "toppling of the regime" as one of its founding goals.

SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun recently stated that "the council rejects any outside interference that undermines the sovereignty of the Syrian people." Yet, other SNC members are demanding that the international community--with NATO usually specified--should impose a NFZ over all or some of Syria.

There are two reasons put forward for why a NFZ is needed in Syria. First, some opposition members contend that it will protect civilians. Senator Joe Lieberman, who already supported a Syrian NFZ six months ago, more recently endorsed "safe zones inside Syria, particularly along the Turkish and Jordanian borders," which would be enforced through a NFZ.  Second, as one Syrian activist claimed yesterday, a NFZ would compel more members of the army to defect and "would allow them to organize."

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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