Securing the Air over Syria
Airstrikes have served as the most gruesome weapon of Bashar al-Assad’s military. They are also the easiest to prevent.
Missiles, cannon fire, and barrel bombs are regularly used by the Syrian Air Force to strike against ISIS, US-backed rebels, and civilians. Barrel bombs are particularly disturbing weapons, improvised metal canisters filled with explosives, oil, and shrapnel—possibly, even chlorine gas. These are dropped indiscriminately within Syrian cities. Despite condemnation by the UN and numerous watchdogs, al-Assad continues to slaughter civilians and foes. Of the nearly 20,000 killed by regime airstrikes, the New York Times reports that over a quarter have been children. To prevent more of these deaths, President Obama just needs to approve a simple mission: establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.
No-fly zones are air superiority missions that demand opposition aircraft remain grounded or outside of specified airspace, under threat of destruction. By eliminating a military’s access to air support, a conflict is balanced to remove a state’s greatest monopolization of force. Importantly, this does not serve as an intervention that secures revolutionary success. Instead, no-fly zones provide the opportunity for a populace with sufficiently massive support to overthrow their government. Otherwise, an anti-regime force serves no greater purpose than air force target practice.
Importantly, civilians are the ultimate benefactors of no-fly zones. When regimes begin to strike populated areas, civilian casualties occur—regardless of the attackers’ intentions. Often times, when a regime is overextended and underperforming, the military turns to waging a war of moral attrition. For this, al-Assad is exemplary: initiating serious air strikes, leveling the city of Homs, and deploying chemical weapons as rebels began to defeat his forces in mid-2012.
This approach worked remarkably well in Iraq during the 1980s and ‘90s, Bosnia in the ‘90s, and Libya in the past few years. In the Libyan operation alone, tens of thousands were saved thanks to the forced grounding of Qaddafi’s air force. These engagements also demonstrate how easily scalable the establishment of no-fly zones can be for military planners. Air superiority can be established in order to prevent a land war, enable a strong intervention, allow for targeted bombing, or be quickly removed; providing a wide array of alternatives should the situation in Syria change.
Not only is implementing a no-fly zone something the American military easily can do, it is something we ought to do. The growing civilian death toll and unprecedented displacement—3 million have fled the country and 6.5 million are internally displaced—are unacceptable for any humanitarian. The lack of American involvement previously is reprehensible. The so-called “red line” Obama drew, and has failed to enforce, serves as a tacit approbation of al-Assad’s actions. Yet, even the most stringent practitioners of realpolitik will recognize America’s interest in action. The status quo is a breeding ground for violence and extremism which only strengthens the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and its affiliates—potentially bombing a Russian aircraft over Sinai, committing genocide in Syria, and financing an ever-growing network of terror. It is only a matter of time before the threat of ISIS and its supporters causes grave harm to Americans.
Even the strongest critics of previous American missions focusing on historically lax rules of engagement that insufficiently deter. With Russia’s recent deployment of aircraft and anti-air batteries to Syria, any action in the region would surely be unique and difficult. Strict rules of engagement that include Russian forces would be unadvisable, Syria is not such a casus belli. Fortunately, a no-fly zone would still be effective even if Russian planes went unharassed, continuing their strikes against the Islamic State (i.e., US-trained and -funded rebels). Putin will not be able to get away with attacking civilians or so brazenly decimating cities like al-Assad, he will instead continue to focus on mostly offensive targets.
For those worried of American aircraft skirmishing with Russian, or a general risk to American pilots, there are some other alternatives. The Institute for the Study of War has presented a number of operational Courses of Action to implement a no-fly zone in Syria at limited cost and risk, without all the risks. Instead, they provide recommendations for ground- and sea-based radar, anti-air batteries, and optionally tasked enforcement or awareness aircraft. With a smaller deployment than historic no-fly zones, these proposals would focus on the regions around Aleppo and north of the Jordanian border, where the regime has specifically focused their urban airstrikes.
While now is surely not the most opportune point to establish a no-fly zone over Syria, every American procrastination has been met with a worsened situation. If the United States wants to maintain any shred of benevolency, any degree of hegemony, or any chance of security, then we must implement a no-fly zone.