Why a No-Fly Zone won’t Work in Syria

Syrian troops fired into peaceful demonstrations in Hama and Homs on Friday. Repression of protests yesterday is estimated to have cost 40 lives. The BBC reports that some demonstrators are calling for a “no-fly zone” imposed by the international community on Syria. (The BBC video shows a sign demanding a hazr jawwi or aerial curfew.)

This wish for outside intervention on the part of some street protesters contrasts with the position of the opposition Syrian National Council, which has steadfastly rejected foreign meddling in Syria

There are many reasons for which the protesters will not get their wish for a no-fly zone over Syria.

Most important, a no-fly zone is not a practical response to the Baath government’s repression. On Friday, troops just shot into the crowds. Unlike Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad is not bombing his cities with jets from the air. Nor are helicopter gunships or tank units central to the coercive abilities of the Syrian state. Syrian geography is complex, and plinking tanks from the air is not an option in Syria.

A further consideration is that Syria is in conflict with Israel, and taking out its anti-aircraft abilities would so weaken it as to encourage Israeli adventurism. Libya was not at war with its neighbors this spring and summer and so an intervention there did not upset regional balances of power.

There is no Arab League resolution urging intervention in Syria. There is no United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing war. In the absence of a UNSC resolution, any attack on Syria would be considered an act of aggression and could open US politicians and military men to prosecution in international courts.

Russia and China are against Western intervention, which dooms any condemnatory resolution at the UN security council. In international law since 1945, especially in the UN charter, the only grounds for going to war are self-defense or as a result of a UNSC resolution. Neither obtains in Syria and any foreign intervention would therefore be illegal, and the pilots could be tried in international courts.

It breaks my heart to say all this. The youth of Syria is being cold-bloodedly shot down by army snipers. You wish there was a way to stop it. But there isn’t. There isn’t a practical set of military tactics outsiders could deploy effectively in this situation. There is no international framework of legality for an intervention.

But it should be remembered that the political wing of the Syrian opposition in any case does not want such an intervention, and that most Syrians are determined to go it alone. They want to do what the Tunisians and Egyptians did. They should be given a chance, since that would be the best outcome possible.

25 Responses

  1. Juan, it should be noted that NATO’s action in Libya was much more than a “no-fly” zone: it was a sustained air war against the Libyan state.

    • The Libyan state was attacking Misrata and the towns of Jabal Nafusa, and the air intervention aimed at stopping that ongoing massacre.

  2. Yes, it really is an all-or-nothing shot. However, the odds seem bleaker from my outsider view. Can we just tighten the sanctions, massively embargo them, or something to help encourage it?

  3. Juan,

    In more than one article, you have referred to something being a poor option because it “could open US politicians and military men to prosecution in international courts.”

    It was my understanding that the US had carefully avoided becoming party to international agreements which would permit just that – thereby eliminating/reducing the risk of such international legal action against that sort of military intervention.

  4. Let Syrians solve their problems themselves. Outside intervention may complicate the situation currently prevailing there.

  5. A few unrelated questions:

    1) What is the situtation with the Qaddafi military at this point?
    Do they still wield power or influence?
    Have the leaders been arrested?
    Just wondering what role the military will play in the New Libya, if it’s a danger at all, how much it needs to be reformed?

    2) In Tunisia was there a certain percentage of seats set aside for women in the recent voting? I thought I read that but googling turns up nothing.

    3) What has happened with the Libyan agent who bombed the Lockerbie flight? I assume he’s still in Libya and was wondering what the new gov’t has done about him.

    4) What about the stories that Qaddafi’s adopted daughter wasn’t killed back in the late 80′s US bombing, but lived and became a doctor? Haven’t heard follow-up on that crazy story?

    Any information appreciated.

  6. It might be a good time to provide the Syrian youth with scopes, ammo and a large number of 50 BMG sniper rifles.
    ….except Israel would forbid it.

  7. Libya—-Aside from the aggressiveness of Q’s military, the opposition really was committed to doing whatever it took to see him gone: either in exile or on a lamppost. Their amatuerism was evident, but so was their commitment.

    Syria—There is this effete, non-violent, wishy-washy “commitment” of some of the people, even as those who stick their heads up are having them blown off. There simply is not the overall commitment to change, however messy it might be, that we saw in Libya.

    IF there was a sizable group in Syria really committed to change, and whatever it took, that’d take it to a civil war, which was what there really was in Libya.

    At that point, the West might entertain what it might do, geography and military practicalities notwithstanding.

    What we have here is a shame/sham. There’s alot of good thinking about situations like this, where a good part of the population is on the fence, waiting to see how things shake out before declaring, but it isn’t even that complex. Looking at the number of people actually resisting, relative to Syria’s population, this seems inclined to go down as a messy police action: to see that happens relies mainly on Asad playing it pretty much as he has, so as not to provoke a more general resistence.

    So, if things do not change, and he does not overplay his hand, at some point in the near future he will have killed/eliminated enough of the dissenters so that things will subside back to his liking.

    Next case.

  8. Juan: You are correct about the political aspects of a US intervention i Syria, but fortunately not about the military aspects.

    The US has already intervened eletronically in Syria, in 2007 aqainst the suspected Syrian nuclear reactor: link to aviationweek.com
    by using the U.S.-developed “Suter” airborne network attack system developed by BAE Systems and integrated into U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle operations by L-3 Communications.

    If Obama wanted to, he could knock out Assad’s command and control systems and severely disrupt his governments military communications. Not enough to topple Assad perhaps, but certainly enough to put a lot of preassure on his government.

    The US debated whether to use Cyber warfare against Libya link to nytimes.com but decided against doing so.

    So there are many ways to hit the Assad regime short of a non-fly-zone.

  9. You gotta comment on the Turkey aiding the rebels in Syria story that was in the NY Times. If this is true this is quite a development that could lead to some weird conflicts & enemies of enemies things, esp. re: Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Iran…

  10. None of those considerations matter.

    The entire purpose of the Libyan intervention was oil,

    The entire purpose of a Syria intervention will be to enable Israel to attack Hizballah in Lebanon by entering Syrian territory and cutting into the Bekaa Valley to Hizballah’s rear in an attempt to crush Hizballah in southern Lebanon.

    This would be very difficult for Israel if it had to contend with Syrian forces at its rear at the same time. But if the US/EU are attacking Syria at the same time, it will be easier for Israel to attempt its objective.

    And both the weakening of Syria and the weakening of Hizballah will set the groundwork for an attack on Iran.

    This is the entire purpose of a Syrian attack by the US/EU under the bogus “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine.

    • Libya was not about oil – the Italian, French & Spanish oil companies already had the leases, companies like Haliburton and KBR were well entrenched in the services sector. Why would NATO attack a country to get something it already had!

      The reason not much Libyan Oil goes to the US is because US refineries are not designed to use Libya’s very light oil.

    • Western companies were already drilling and buying Libya’s oil before the war. In fact, it was their decision to back the protesters that led to the oil being cut off in the first place.

      Humanitarian intervention poses some very difficult problems for people of a leftist bent. It arrays some of our most precious values against each other.

      So difficult, apparently, that many leftists make up excuses to avoid having to think about the matter at all, and retreat to the comforting safety of much more easily denounced episodes, whether the facts of the matter support such a reading or not.

  11. In the event that “democracy” breaks out in Syria, what would be done to protect the (ruling minority) ‘Alawi population? Do they predominate in any particular region that could be given autonomy? This calculation goes far in explaining the desperation with which they cling to power.

  12. Questions for Prof Cole.
    Can Bashar al-Assad turn on a dime even if he wanted to? Does he have the power (not statutory) to order the security force back to their barracks or is he himself to some extent a prisoner of the security forces he unleashed?

  13. Interventions from the west have been occuring for the last 200 years. The west needs to be put on notice to stay put and let sovereign nations settle their own internal conflicts.

  14. Dear Professor Cole

    When visiting Damascus it is important to visit Jussuf al Asmeh square, see his statue and to look up the man’s story and understand where he sits in the Syrian psyche.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    Outside interference in Syria will generate the same backlash that an attack on Iran will. Triggering wider hostilities on the Lebanese or Gaza front is to be avoided.

    I agree with your analysis.

  15. You forgot one reason that´s, well, something of a far cry but would worry me anyways: Iran would feel obliged to do something at the point of a military intervention. Most likely, they would content themselves with rhetorical venom, but you never know, and even that…

    I know how isolated people in both countries (Iran and Syria) feel from the rest of the world. An intervention even on their behalf would isolate them even more. Any new sanction as a consequence of martial rhetoric would just hurt Reza Hashemi and Mohammed Fruitseller in the street in the first place.

  16. PS of course, I neither meant to say “let the Syrians be butchered to spare the Iranians more sanctions”, nor “allow the mullahs to intimidate the international community”.

    I am convinced in the first place that a military intervention would not only be no good for the people we all want to help but would also be perceived as an incursion and an insolence by most Syrians regardless on which side. The international community would be busy till the end of times after doing their bull-in-the-china-shop number to consecutively defend and reinstall religious and ethnic minorities´ rights.

    The very fragile balance between different religious and ethnic fractions inside of Syria precludes an easy solution from the outside. The very fragile balance between powers between the nations of that region clearly just frightens me, and I am surprised how people suddenly seem to forget what area of the world we´re talking about.

  17. This mess gets worse by the day. Doubtful that we’ll get actively involved. The U.S. simply lost too much regional goodwill, thanks to Dubya’s brilliant invasion of Iraq. Contrary to Juan, I don’t think Israel has any real interest in getting involved. Bibi views Assad continuing in office as the devil you know being better than the one you don’t.

    Turkey’s going to be more key than either NATO, the U.S. or any other outside actor. Erdogan was deeply embarrassed by Assad whose bloody crackdown made a mockery of Turkey’s “no problem” foreign policy toward the region. The Turkish press has since noted that yes, there is a big problem on the nation’s southern border. And that has convinced the Turks to funnel assistance to the Syrian resistance, which now has a guaranteed lifeline.

    But look to Syrians to be the ones ultimately driving this drama to a conclusion. Assad and his cohorts make it more clear each day that they don’t intend to create a just pluralist society. It’s a family business where the goodies are reserved for one particular sect and the status quo is enforced with a cruel sword. How long can that model survive? Just ask Qaddafi. Oh, forgot. He’s not around any longer. Exactly.

  18. Prof. Cole’s point about geography and tanks is key.

    Air power can stop a column of tanks approaching enemy lines. With drones, air power can put a missile on a rocket launcher or artillery battery as it shells a city. But what is air power supposed to do when security officers with small arms are in and among the populace of a city?

  19. Providing rebels with anti-tank guns and other weaponry would even the current struggle against Assad’s merciless forces. Furthermore, this is within the limits of Turkey, China, EU, and Arab League.

    People have been protesting constantly in Homs and Hama for over 3 months now and they are shot and killed every time. That is a an amazing people risking their life for hope of freedom.

    Re: Israel. Assad has been very weak against Israel and does not provide Israel with any political problems on any issues, even Golan Heights. Israel surely would fear a democratic Syria.

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