Like many, I’ve been shocked at the deaths and the escalation of violence in Syria and the crisis it is creating in one of the hottest political and conflict areas in the globe. So, I am sure you have read and heard many recommend or ask why a no-fly zone, much like what was in place across Northern and Southern Iraq when Saddam was in charge, is not put in place to try and stop Assad’s forces from using attack helicopters on his opponents, including civilians.
Stephen Starr has raised this question over at the Irish Times during the past week where he has suggested it may be the least worst option available:
‘A limited, Nato-led no-fly zone is perhaps the best in a bad line of options to help end the conflict. A no-fly scenario would stop Damascus from dropping bombs – which opposition groups report have killed at least 4,300 civilians since last July – on civilian neighbourhoods.‘
‘Western-led military interventions in Muslim and Arab countries have had a disastrous recent history and should be avoided. But the conflict in Syria will drag on for years, spark further sectarian hatred and suck in the wider region if the situation continues. Aside from the moral obligation to help the millions of Syrians in need, there is a responsibility to stop extremist groups from destabilising Syria and its neighbours. The grounding of Assad’s aircraft is the least bad way to do so.‘
However, over at the New Yorker an absolutely excellent piece from Dexter Filkins would make you question whether that is either a good idea or even doable? The article itself focuses more on the tack that the Obama White House is taking of apparently not wanting to engage in the conflict in a very meaningful manner owing to previous experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Filkins notes a few other points which, for me, give a lot more nuance and a fuller explanation than what I’ve seen from other commentators:
‘Obama has told his aides that a no-fly zone would require a much larger military operation than its proponents believe. “A no-fly zone is not a simple endeavor in Syria,’’ Rhodes told me. The country’s air defense, which was designed to repel Israeli attacks, is one of the densest in the world, replete with radar and surface-to-air missiles. In Obama’s view, the logical way to set up a no-fly zone is to destroy much of this network, in addition to taking out the planes and the helicopters. Such an operation would likely kill many people on the ground, and possibly endanger American servicemen.‘
So, whilst the US has the means to enforce a no-fly zone the US President believes there could be a large number of unintended consequences. Then, of course, there is Assad’s chemical weapons which he may have already used on civilians:
‘Assad’s chemical-weapons program is dauntingly hard to eliminate by military force, Samore said. “All the options are horrible.” The weapons facilities are dispersed across dozens of sites. “It’s such a vast program, and many of the facilities are close to civilian areas,” he said. Bombing the facilities could result in many civilian casualties and the release of clouds of deadly chemicals. And there is no guarantee that a bombing campaign would destroy all the sites. “What do we do then?” he said.‘
But for me, here’s the kicker and the point that many people have ignored (it’s in bold):
‘In May, the senior American official who is involved in Syria policy met me at his office in Washington. When I asked him to predict Syria’s future, he got up from his desk and walked over to a large map of the country which was tacked to his wall. “You could have a situation where the more secular rebel groups could well be fighting the more Islamist-oriented groups,” he said. “We are already getting that in places like Deir ez-Zor, in the east. In Aleppo, they fight each other.” Pointing to an area near the Turkish border, he said, “We see fighting between Kurdish and Arab militias up in the north.” Elsewhere, there were Druze militias, members of a small religious community most often associated with Lebanon. “They have had some clashes with the Free Syrian Army. And here is my favorite. Christians are now setting up their own militia.
“What does that sound like? Lebanon. But it’s Lebanon on steroids.” He walked back to his desk and sat down. “The Syria I have just drawn for you—I call it the Sinkhole,’’ he said. “I think there is an appreciation, even at the highest levels, of how this is getting steadily worse. This is the discomfort you see with the President, and it’s not just the President. It’s everybody.” No matter how well intentioned the advocates of military intervention are, he suggested, getting involved in a situation as complex and dynamic as the Syrian civil war could be a foolish risk. The cost of saving lives may simply be too high’
Whatever does happen, and I do hope that the people of Syria get respite from the terror being visited on them sooner rather than later, it could get a whole lot worse.