The Syrian conflict will not come to an end before the conclusion of President Obama’s term in January 2016, even had the September 9 U.S.-Russia deal for Syria proceeded as planned. Meanwhile, the presidential candidates and other politicians speak of plans to defeat Islamic State (ISIS) without acknowledging that the civil war in Syria creates a safe haven for ISIS to operate, plan, and inspire violence around the world. Beyond the link to the ISIS fight, the conflict in Syria is destabilizing already fragile neighboring states, has created the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and is polarizing European—and U.S.—politics as it fuels nationalist movements.
The September 9 U.S.-Russia deal was intended to provide a path through which a cessation of hostilities could lead to a negotiated end to the conflict. But Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in the late hours of its announcement that the negotiations were based on the Obama Administration’s belief that Russia has “the capability to press the Assad regime to stop this conflict and come to the table and make peace.” That depends on the good faith of concerned parties, and in Russia’s case there isn’t any.
Weeks before the United States and Russia finalized their agreement, some policymakers on Capitol Hill developed a plan, the Caesar Civilian Protection Act, to influence U.S. policy toward the conflict in the final months of the Obama Administration’s tenure. That plan includes the requirement that the President assess within 90 days of enactment “the potential effectiveness, risks, and operational requirements of the establishments and maintenance of a no-fly zone over part or all of Syria.”
Given the reoccurrence of safe zone and no-fly zone recommendations throughout the last several months—including vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine signing a letter to the President with fellow Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham calling for humanitarian safe zones in April 2015—it seems unreasonable that the Obama Administration would not have yet conducted such a thorough and complete assessment itself. Perhaps determinations that the implementation of a no-fly zone would first require the United States to take out an Assad regime air defense system was enough to check the “assessment” box. Or perhaps President Obama’s concern about where it all ends once on a slippery slope of military action has precluded the desire to even make such an assessment.
But regardless of what has sufficed in the past, if the President were to conduct such an assessment as mandated by the Caesar bill, or if the incoming Administration were to see such an assessment as due diligence in evaluating policy options in response to an issue displacing millions, destabilizing continents, and fueling terrorist propaganda—he or she would see that the United States has recent experience with no-fly zones, and the greatest challenges come not during the tactical execution but while building a coalition for sustained flight operations.
The U.S. Experience with No-Fly Zones
Every new administration seeks to take a “fresh look” at ongoing foreign policy crises, to step back, to evaluate current efforts, and to devise new options for action. The no-fly zone is a relatively new tactic, first implemented during George H.W. Bush’s presidency and refined during President Bill Clinton’s time in office.
The U.S. government first implemented a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991, only weeks after the ceasefire that ended the one hundred-hour ground offensive of Operation Desert Storm. In the wake of the overwhelming victory, and with the encouragement of the Bush Administration, the Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Army responded brutally, deploying helicopter gunships which fired indiscriminately on rebels and civilians, firing artillery barrages into opposition areas, and rounding up thousands and imprisoning or executing them. The Kurds fled north to Turkey, creating a humanitarian and strategic crisis. What followed was Operation Provide Comfort, a humanitarian operation to establish safe havens for the Iraqi Kurds in refugee camps in northern Iraq secured by U.S. forces.
To support this operation, President George H.W. Bush declared that no Iraqi aircraft of any kind would be allowed to fly north of the 36th parallel in Iraq, and thus began what would be a nearly 12-year enforcement of the northern Iraqi no-fly zone. That was followed 15 months later by the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone in southern Iraq.
At the beginning of the Clinton Administration, the Bosnian conflict dominated the national security establishment, and one of the ideas conceived was the “lift and strike” policy. The conflict was escalating, and policymakers theorized that a two-pronged strategy of lifting the United Nations arms embargo in order to allow the poorly armed Bosniaks to arm themselves with imported weapons and thus balance the conflict, coupled with the threat of air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, would improve the chances of finding a political settlement.
The European allies rejected “lift and strike,” primarily because the peacekeeping forces on the ground in Bosnia were small in number and vulnerable, and did not include any U.S. troops. Thus, the Europeans feared such strikes would endanger those forces. With UN authorization NATO did impose a no-fly zone beginning in April 1993, and in a number of instances did escalate with air strikes, which realized the allies’ fears. On several occasions, peacekeepers were taken hostage by Bosnian Serb forces in response to NATO bombings. The no-fly zone nevertheless succeeded in preventing the significant use of air power by any side in the conflict, and eventually when a sustained NATO bombing campaign, Operation Deliberate Force, began in August of 1995, it played a key role in ending the war.
The Iraqi no-fly zones were mostly quiet for many years, until Saddam Hussein’s resistance and stubborn refusal to allow UN inspectors free access to questionable facilities thought to be involved in a weapons of mass destruction program came to a head. A four-day bombing campaign in December 1998, Operation Desert Fox, escalated the operations in Iraq. After Desert Fox, the no-fly zones evolved into almost daily clashes between Iraqi air defense forces and allied pilots flying over Iraq. As the George W. Bush Administration studied policy options in Iraq in 2001, it took a fresh look at the sanctions regime and how to improve its effectiveness, analyzed options for regime change, and evaluated the “risky no-fly zones.” It is hard to make the case that the no-fly zones, after working for 12 years, were on the brink of failure. It was impatience, not poor performance, that led to the termination of the no-fly zones and their replacement with more violent and costly alternatives.
The Obama Administration’s only direct experience with a no-fly zone was the Libyan operation in 2011, which was referred to as a no-fly zone by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 that authorized the operation, but is more accurately classified as an air campaign. For seven months the allies flew over Libya, not seeking to prevent Qaddafi’s air force from flying (that was accomplished immediately, as the Libyan Air Force was hardly flying before the operation), but rather bombing forces on the ground in an effort to “protect civilians” that would lead to the fall of Qaddafi.
The lessons learned from these previous instances provide different templates about the requirements to implement a NFZ, as well as the authority and legal justifications needed to deny flight to actors in a foreign country, like Syria. These previous lessons also underscore the need for concurrent diplomatic efforts to assemble a coalition to enforce the zones and, most importantly, to continue diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the crisis. Together, these experiences can help inform the next administration about the options to escalate U.S. military involvement in Syria and how the increased use of force could be leveraged to extract political concessions in a separate dialogue with the Syrian regime.
Justification, Authority, and Building a Coalition
The justification and authorization for the establishment of a no-fly zone is in many respects the most difficult obstacle to overcome; no-fly zones are only possible when there is a near-consensus among world powers and regional actors. In Iraq, it was the unique circumstance of Saddam’s repression of his own people that led to the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 688 on April 5, 1991, which demanded that Iraq “immediately end this repression and express[ed] hope in the same context that an open dialogue will take place to ensure that the human and political rights of all Iraqi citizens are respected.” Although it never specifically mentioned a no-fly zone, this was used as the justification for one. Further, the establishment of a coalition was feasible. Great Britain and France participated in the enforcement, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar all allowed aircraft to fly from their bases.
In Bosnia, there was a strong consensus that military efforts should be made to stop the escalating violence, and dozens of Security Council resolutions were passed to enforce and implement the no-fly zone, even on some occasions calling for more military action than the allied air forces were capable of achieving, such as for the United Nations Protection Force to use “all necessary measures, through the use of air power, in and around the safe areas.”
In Libya, there was a unique and remarkable consensus of international support, from the Arab League to the United Nations, including the acquiescence of both Russia and China. A week before the operation began, nine of the 22 members of the Arab League called for the establishment of a no-fly zone. Five days later, UNSCR 1973 was passed, authorizing “member states…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libya Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form….”
With these as historical precedents, it becomes clear that the building a coalition is the first, most important, and most difficult challenge. One can imagine a special envoy, much like current envoy to defeat ISIL, Brett McGurk, shuttling around the region trying to get Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, as well as France, Great Britain, and other Western allies to join in a coalition to create safe zones, enforce a no-fly zone, and discuss a framework for such a military operation. The complexity of such a mission is immediately apparent, but it would be the only path to an effective operation. It is not likely to include a Security Council resolution, however, as Russia and China almost certainly would not cooperate.
Defining and Implementing the Mission
A first step in any well-planned military operation should be defining the end state. Given the complex geopolitical circumstances surrounding the conflict in Syria, and the lessons of protracted conflicts in the Middle East looming over U.S. and international decision-makers, a clearly defined end state is absolutely critical.
The desired end state in Syria should be Syrian regime and opposition acceptance of a negotiated political settlement for the conflict—the start of the “transitional government” of the 2012 Geneva Communiqué. The United States and Russia identified reaching a political settlement as a mutual purpose in their announcement of a cessation of hostilities in February 2016, and asserted that they had redoubled efforts to reach a political settlement in their May 2016 joint statement. Despite their assertions of this shared interest, however, the summer of 2016 brought a return of heightened violence, including major military operations around Aleppo. The September 9 U.S.-Russia agreement, notwithstanding the rapid demise of its associated cessation of hostilities, seems to suggest that both nations have an interest in bringing the conflict to an end through negotiations, although they have different understandings of Assad’s future and how best to achieve their stated objectives. Russia’s recent bombing of an aid convoy and the renewed violence in Aleppo, however, underscores the difficulty for the United States of reaching consensus with a powerful actor with a different set of priorities.
The Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee laid out its framework for a political solution on September 7, 2016, but the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) has failed to bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table. The United States and the international community have thus far been unwilling to threaten or use force against the Assad regime, at least since air strikes were threatened in August 2013.
If they are willing to change their approach and deal more aggressively with the Assad regime, a no-fly zone could provide the leverage to bring Assad to the negotiating table by taking away a critical tool of the regime. Assad uses indiscriminate attacks on civilians—markets, hospitals, schools among the targets—to make conditions in opposition-controlled territory unlivable. In recent weeks, a UN report presented “sufficient evidence” that the Syrian military has even used chemical weapons, despite the regime’s claim to have destroyed its arsenal in 2013—and the Obama Administration’s statement, in August 2014, that the regime’s declared chemical weapons supply had been neutralized.
Such a threat of a no-fly zone or implementation of one would in all likelihood be over Russian objections. There is a risk of escalation or a standoff with Russia if the United States decides to implement a no-fly zone. But in reality, the United States has the stronger air force, and if it declared a no-fly zone, the Russians would likely accept it, as escalation would not be to their advantage. De-confliction is a feasible challenge to overcome, but no operation is risk-free. The United States and Russia have de-conflicted operations in Syria throughout the conflict, despite their support for opposing actors. A U.S.-led no-fly zone will require similar de-confliction, which in turn would require the sharing of some information with a hostile actor—a process that could resemble in part the failed September 9 agreement.
Past U.S. experiences with no-fly zones demonstrate that the United States has the capability to implement a no-fly zone. Historical evidence shows that no-fly zones are comparatively low-cost operations, and have not led to mission creep—even when the use of force is intended to decrease civilian casualties, rather than force a hostile dictator to make political concessions, as was the case in Iraq. Implementation of a no-fly zone would not be without risk—including risks from Russian objections or Syrian regime air defense systems. The U.S. experience indicates, however, the greatest challenge comes not from management of these risks in implementation but rather in building a coalition. Building such a coalition to implement a no-fly zone in Syria would be a diplomatic and political heavy lift, therefore requiring determination by a U.S. administration. After five-and-a-half years of fighting, a no-fly zone would be but one tool in the spectrum of actions likely needed to bring the Syrian conflict to a conclusion—but it would perhaps be a pivotal one.