FPI Bulletin: Bipartisan Support Grows For Syria No-Fly Zones

November 2, 2015

On Friday, rockets fired by Bashar al-Assad’s troops slammed into an open-air market in the Damascus suburb of Douma. Airstrikes, mortars, and artillery fire followed the initial attack, leaving a total of 65 dead and hundreds wounded. In response to the relentless brutality of the Syrian regime, support is growing on both sides of the aisle—and within the Obama administration—for the imposition of a no-fly zone that would prevent Assad’s forces from sowing terror with its air forces.

Growing Bipartisan Support

Four years ago, in his annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama asked, “As we meet here today, men and women and children are being tortured, detained and murdered by the Syrian regime. … the question for us is clear: Will we stand with the Syrian people, or with their oppressors?” While there has been no lack of sympathy for the plight of the Syrian people since then, there has also been no decisive action to protect them from the violence that has now claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, driven 4 million Syrians from their country, and displaced nearly another 8 million within Syria’s borders.

In April, four prominent Senators—Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and John McCain (R-AZ)—sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to establish humanitarian safe zones in Syria, “with the necessary enforcement mechanisms, including the potential use of air assets so that civilians can be protected and receive unfettered humanitarian aid.” Kaine later observed that he was originally an opponent of a no-fly zone when it was first proposed by Sen. McCain, yet events on the ground had persuaded him of its necessity.

The advent of the Syrian refugee crisis as well as the arrival of Russian forces in theater sharply accelerated the growth of public support for a no-fly zone.  The day after Russian bombs began to fall in Syria, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air.” Clinton’s support followed endorsements of a no-fly zone by Republican candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

In October, several other GOP candidates announced their support for a no-fly zone, with Donald Trump the most notable opponent of the idea. Clinton’s opponents, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley both oppose the idea as well.

National security experts have also joined the debate. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote, No-fly zones and safe harbors for populations are not ‘half-baked’ ideas. They worked before (protecting the Kurds for 12 years under Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror) and warrant serious consideration. We will continue to have refugees until people are safe….In short, we must create a better military balance of power on the ground if we are to seek a political solution acceptable to us and to our allies.”

Gates and Rice were responding directly to comments by President Obama, who dismissed proposals for a no-fly zone by saying, “when I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions, or trying to downplay the challenges involved in this situation – what I’d like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do, and how would you fund it, and how would you sustain it?  And typically, what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.”

President Obama’s own advisers, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have not found his dismissal to be persuasive, however. The New York Times reported on Friday, “The Obama administration is locked in a sharp new debate over whether to deploy American military forces to establish no-fly zones and safe havens in Syria to protect civilians caught in its grinding civil war.”  Among the options reportedly being considered are areas along Syria’s border with Turkey and Jordan that could either be “exclusively for humanitarian relief,” or “sanctuary for Syrian opposition forces allied with Americans.”

Senior military experts have expressed their belief that a no-fly zone is eminently practical. In Senate testimony on September 22, General David Petraeus made an emphatic case for “enclaves in Syria protected by coalition airpower, where a moderate Sunni force could be supported and where additional forces could be trained, Internally Displaced Persons could find refuge, and the Syrian opposition could organize.” “The central problem in Syria,” Petraeus said, is that Sunni Arabs will not be willing partners against the Islamic State unless we commit to protect them and the broader Syrian population against all enemies, not just ISIS.”

On October 8, retired Army General and former Vice Chief of Staff Jack Keane told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “Putin has begun a proxy war with the U.S. when Russian combat aircraft struck, continuously, moderate rebel forces trained by the CIA.” In response, General Keane recommended U.S. “crater the Al Assad runway [which is being used by Russia to strike targets in Syria], establish free zones that are sanctuaries for refugees, [and] strike Assad’s helicopter fleet that is barrel bombing.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her support during the first Democratic primary debate, saying, “We have to stand up to [Putin’s] bullying, and specifically in Syria, it is important…to provide safe zones so that people are not going to have to be flooding out of Syria at the rate they are. And, I think it's important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it's not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can't do that if we don't take more of a leadership position.”

The Challenges of Imposing a No-Fly Zone

When confronted with calls for a no-fly zone, the administration has relied on Pentagon leaders to question the practicality and cost of the idea.  In its report on divisions with the administration, the New York Times described how Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter “presented sobering estimates of the extensive military resources required to enforce such zones,” during a recent National Security Council meeting, “leaving many at the table dubious about the wisdom of taking action.”  

Secretary Carter’s objections echo similar concerns from the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. In July 2013, Dempsey warned that establishing a no-fly zone “would require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications.  Estimated costs are $500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year.” 

At the same time, an independent analysis by Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War found that American air and naval forces could impose a no-fly zone by destroying the runways at Syrian Air Force bases. Harmer concluded that this mission could “be accomplished at very low cost” without U.S. aircraft even entering Syrian air space, since U.S. forces have weapons with sufficient range to strike from a distance.

Unquestionably, the presence of Russian forces will complicate any effort to impose a no-fly zone, yet a range of options remain available to the administration, none of which involve a direct confrontation with Russia. By placing anti-aircraft weapons just across the borders that Syria shares with Jordan and Turkey, the U.S. could credibly threaten to shoot down Syrian aircraft that fly over rebel-held territory near those borders. Since Russian aircraft are only flying out of a single base near the Syrian coast, the U.S. could also pursue Harmer’s 2013 proposal for destroying Syrian military runways.

Diplomatic Leverage

Success at the negotiating table depends on establishing favorable positions on the ground. On Friday, foreign ministers from 20 nations gathered in Vienna to discuss the future of Syria. Ahead of the meeting in Vienna, the Obama administration had already begun to make concessions. Once insistent that Bashar al-Assad must step down in order to facilitate a peaceful transition in Syria, the administration now says that Assad may remain in power several months longer.

It is particularly troubling that these U.S. concessions have followed Russia’s intervention and Iran’s deployment of combat forces to Syria. To reverse that dynamic, the U.S. ought to increase its own leverage by establishing a no-fly zone, whose humanitarian benefits should be complemented by a serious effort to train and equip Syrian opposition forces in areas no longer accessible to Assad’s air force.

The civil war in Syria demonstrates the cost of American passivity. The war has enabled ISIS to thrive while enabling Russia to return to the Middle East after a 40 year absence. The longer President Obama waits to take decisive action, the worse the situation will get.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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