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

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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."

However, there are a few points to bear in mind before the international community proceeds toward imposing a NFZ over Syria.

The overwhelming number of civilian casualties are not the result of strikes from above. As was true in Libya, the vast majority of deaths are in urban areas, and are caused by soldiers on the ground, tanks, short-range artillery, and snipers. While the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that the Syrian Air Force has 555 combat capable aircraft--including 150 fighters and 289 fighter ground attack planes--they have not yet been used against civilians. Given that the real problem for civilians is persistent oppression from ground forces, a NFZ would have little or no impact in protecting the vulnerable.

On a handful of occasions, Syrian security forces have unleashed helicopter gunships against civilian protestors, or in coordination with armored ground forces against rural villages. Enforcing a NFZ against helicopters is an operational challenge, which would require a significant commitment of surveillance and strike aircraft, since helicopter gunships can quickly take off, fly low, launch airstrikes, and land. Regime-directed helicopters repeatedly violated the NFZs over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, and to a limited extent in Libya, without being attacked because it was difficult to distinguish between civilian and military helicopters, and there was insufficient air assets or political will.

Lastly, the NFZ in Libya did not protect civilian populations; it was actually the use of close air support against Qaddafi regime forces on the ground. The Pentagon defines close air support (CAS) as "air action by fixed-and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and that require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces." (If interested to learn more, you can read the official joint doctrine publication for CAS here.) To successfully implement CAS against Syrian ground forces, boots will be on the ground as well, since western air forces generally will not provide CAS in contested, urban environments without on-the-ground assistance from trusted forward air controllers and intelligence agents, as was true in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Libya.

When Syrian opposition members, exiled activists, and U.S. Senators call for a no-fly-zone over Syria, what they are actually proposing is close air support. CAS is a different military mission from NFZs, and requires a different campaign plan, detailed mission plans, personnel, ordinance, and surveillance and attack assets. Furthermore, CAS is a tactic that can be used to protect civilians, or to support regime change that requires an armed opposition on the ground. Neither the Syrian opposition, nor anybody else, has adequately explained how a CAS military mission will be integrated into a broader strategy of either civilian protection or toppling Assad.

Nine days before the international community intervened in Libya, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee, warning: "I want to remind people that, you know, we had a no-fly zone over Iraq.  It did not prevent Saddam Hussein from slaughtering people on the ground, and it did not get him out of office." Secretary Clinton's words of caution were prophetic. It was not a no-fly-zone, but rather close air support that played the decisive role in getting Moammar Qaddafi out of power. If that military mission is required in Syria, we should identify it appropriately, and consider the operational requirements and political will that will be required.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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