Now is the Time for a Safe Zone in Syria

October 16, 2012

Joint Bulletin by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Henry Jackson Society

Syria’s internal crisis is spinning out of control.  Dictator Bashar al-Assad’s military has ramped up its use of force by employing not only artillery and tanks, but also helicopters and warplanes, to indiscriminately kill Syrian rebels and unarmed civilians.  Since February 2011, over 30,000 people have died in Syria, over 1.2 million civilians have been internally displaced from their homes, and more than 340,000 refugees have fled the country.

All too predictably, the escalating violence is now spilling over Syria’s borders—especially into Turkey, where Syria’s deadly cross-border artillery attacks, air and territorial incursions, and use of civilian air traffic to smuggle arms and munitions for resupply have further angered Ankara.  “There’s an attitude that encourages, [and] gives the green light to Assad to kill tens or hundreds of people every day,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan recently said, adding:  “How sad is that the United Nations is as helpless today as it was 20 years ago when it watched the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in the Balkans, Bosnia and Srebrenica.”  Now Turkey is more intensely patrolling its border and airspace, while urging the United States and NATO to provide assistance.

However, current U.S. policy towards Syria, which has relied on international diplomacy, economic pressure, and non-military assistance, has failed to halt the country’s spiraling violence, let alone persuade Assad to step down.  Indeed, U.S. efforts to outsource support to the rebels have only served to empower those in Syria who do not share America’s values or interests.  Instead, the United States—working with European allies, Turkey, and other regional partners—should advance a new strategy that uses combined airpower to impose a safe zone in northern Syria, where the country’s armed opposition groups have de facto control of large territory, and the Assad regime’s air defense systems are weaker and fewer in number.

Specifically, the safe zone in Syria should extend a partial no-fly zone over the Idlib and Aleppo provinces, and create protected space not only for embattled civilians to find refuge and humanitarian aid, but also for various armed opposition groups to better organize themselves by establishing civilian control and a durable chain-of-command.  Through a safe zone, the United States and its allies should be able to better vet and identify members of the opposition who share America’s interests and values, and provide them with critical training, equipment, and self-defense aid in a more controllable and accountable manner.  Finally, a safe zone could fundamentally change the terms of the conflict by prompting more desertions from the Assad regime’s military, helping to reverse fragmentation among the rebels, and creating the critical mass needed to advance serious planning for a post-Assad Syria that respects the impartial rule of law, minority and women’s rights, and peace with its neighbors, including Israel.

Opposition Groups Call for a Safe Zone in Syria

Despite repeated U.S. and international demands that Assad step down, the Syrian dictator has adamantly refused to loosen his ruthless hold on power.  Given Assad’s unwillingness to end the internal bloodshed, President Obama recently conceded that “the likelihood of a soft landing [in Syria] seems pretty distant.”  Euphemisms aside, Syria’s death toll will likely only further increase unless U.S. and international policy towards the Assad regime fundamentally changes.

In August 2012, President Obama told reporters that America will intervene in Syria if the Assad regime crosses the “red line” of using—or distributing—chemical or biological weapons.  Yet this red line has become difficult, if not impossible, to monitor because Syria has “moved” some of its chemical weapons to locations unknown to U.S. intelligence, according to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s statement in late September 2012.

As the crisis in Syria worsens, sitting on the sidelines is no longer a feasible option for the United States.  The ongoing civil war has begun to destabilize neighboring Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.  Senior military leaders in Iran have admitted that Iranian military personnel, including members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Forces, are operating inside of Syria and directly assisting the Assad regime’s military forces.  In Lebanon, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, Hezbollah has also taken an active role in facilitating Assad’s war on the Syrian people.  Meanwhile, sub-state entities from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf States—and some entities that decidedly do not share America’s strategic interests or values—are reportedly supplying money and light arms to anti-regime forces, empowering radical elements of the opposition at the expense of moderate forces. 

What’s worse, violent extremists from across the Middle East are starting to enter into Syria and exploit the increasingly lawless situation.  The influx of foreign jihadists—some of whom are thought to be affiliates of al-Qaeda, or at least ideological sympathizers of the network—increases the risk that Syria could become a failed state.  If Washington and its partners do not take concrete steps to end the Assad regime, then it is not too soon to envison a time when future terrorist attacks against America or its allies might be staged from a country that once begged Washington for rescue.  Prolonging this conflict, in other words, would be not only a moral disgrace but could be a national security nightmare for the United States. 

To help halt the crisis, major groups within Syria’s armed and political opposition now support the creation of a safe zone in the country.  On August 22, 2012, the Commanders of the Military Councils of the Free Syrian Army stated that “the establishment of a safe zone is required in order to mitigate the growing humanitarian calamity in Syria.”  A few days earlier, the Syrian National Council’s President Abdelbaset Sieda echoed a similar sentiment when he said, “Now that Syria's air force is taking part in bombing cities and towns, there must be protection for the Syrian people.  There must be a no-fly zone so that there will be safe havens to refugees.”

Syrians in the country appear to strongly support a safe zone in their country.  For example, the International Republican Institute released a September 2012 survey in which Syrian respondents “exhibited support for a range of international armed intervention measures.”  The survey noted that “[m]easures that would require only air power and air strike support scored the highest, including the imposition of a no-fly zone (average 6.35 on a scale of one to seven, seven being the strongest agreement), the establishment of humanitarian corridors (6.25 average) and armament training to the Free Syrian Army (6.25 average).”

It appears that the American public also now supports the imposition of a safe zone in Syria.  In particular, a recent Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) nationwide survey of 1,000 likely voters in America’s upcoming November 2012 general elections found that a strong majority of Americans (65.8% of respondents) support Washington working “with our allies to establish no-fly zones in Syria to protect civilians and help ensure a transition to a more pro-Western government instead of the current terrorist-supporting regime of Bashar al-Assad.”  As FPI elaborated:  “Support for a more active policy towards the Assad regime held strong across party lines, with 62.9 percent of typically Democratic voters and 69.5 percent of typically Republican voters supporting intervention in Syria.  Similarly, a recent survey conducted by the Brookings Institution found that “[m]ajorities of the American public support increasing sanctions on Syria and imposing an international no-fly zone.”

How a Safe Zone in Syria Can Help End the Crisis—and Advance U.S. Interests

Opponents of intervention often argue it would be too difficult to implement a safe zone in Syria due to the regime’s advanced military capabilities.  But the fact is that the Assad regime’s inability to decisively end the country’s internal insurrection demonstrates that the Syrian military is not as powerful as many presumed.  Indeed, various opposition groups have successfully pushed back against the Assad regime’s offensives and claimed de facto control of sizable areas in northern Syria.   This includes large areas in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, Daraa, and Damascus, as well as four pivotal border crossings with Turkey.  Rebels have also waged increasingly sophisticated raids on Syrian air bases in or near Idlib and Aleppo, destroying or confiscating materiel, and even downing MiG fighter jets and helicopters—all with no direct outside assistance.

In contrast to the western or southern areas of Syria, the north is relatively undefended by anti-aircraft systems, and what there is of them is mostly Soviet-era, making the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone over these two provinces feasible.  There are only seven air bases in total between Idlib and Aleppo.  Indeed, Michael Weiss of the Henry Jackson Society recently interviewed retired Syrian Brigadier General Akil Hashem, who describes the military that he helped to train as a “paper tiger” and adds that the regime’s supposedly formidable air defense systems would be no match against the superior prowess of U.S. or NATO warplanes. 

With large portions of Syria already under opposition control, Washington should work with regional partners to use air power to patrol border areas to protect Syrian civilians and opposition groups from the Assad regime’s continuing use of indiscriminate aerial- and ground-based attacks. A U.S.-led multilateral air campaign would accomplish four important goals. 

First, a safe zone in Syria would protect many thousands of fleeing civilians from attack by government forces.  Over 100,000 Syrian civilians have already fled to neighboring Turkey, up from approximately 25,000 in April.  The United States recently sent a team of U.S. military advisors to Jordan to help it absorb refugees and prepare Jordanian Special Forces to deal with the contingency of chemical weapons being deployed or falling into the hands of extremists.

Second, a multilaterally-backed safe zone would empower opposition groups to coalesce, and provide a venue for international assistance and training.  Although Syria’s internal opposition remains fragmented, various factions have taken positive steps towards cooperation in recent months.  A protected portion of land would provide armed opposition forces with cover to better coordinate efforts and organize themselves, and political opposition groups with the needed space and time to prepare for and plan a post-Assad Syria.

Third, it would link large swaths of land already claimed by opposition forces to major cities, enabling the free movement of much needed medical and communications equipment. 

Fourth, establishing a safe zone would allow Western and Turkish intelligence to better coordinate the flow of weapons to the Syrian opposition and prevent jihadists or ideological extremists from obtaining them.  This has proved an impossible task given what reportedly few intelligence assets that the United States currently has stationed in southern Turkey.  Inside opposition-held Syria, however, an inventory would be easier for the CIA and other intelligence services to track.  Moreover, a no-fly zone would obviate the need for Syrian rebels in Aleppo or Idlib provinces to be armed with surface-to-air missiles or MANPADs since the skies would be free of the Assad regime’s aircraft.

Regional allies are eager to work with the United States to take action.  In September, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani stated his support for a “Plan B” in Syria that involved a no-fly zone.  Turkey has already deployed a battery of anti-aircraft munitions, supplies, and soldiers to key points along its border with Syria, and has repeatedly scrambled fighter jets from the NATO-leased Adana air base to chase away Syrian helicopter gunships that fly within three miles of that border.  Indeed, Ankara appears willing to intervene in Syria, but only with the material assistance and overt support of the United States and other allies. 

A safe zone would be an achievable goal for the United States and regional partners, as Michael Weiss and General Akil Hashem have detailed.  In 2011, aircraft from the United Kingdom, France, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates joined the United States in enforcing a NATO-backed no-fly zone over Libya.  A similar operation in Syria, however, would not necessarily require approval from the U.N. Security Council.  Multilateral approval could be provided by the Arab League and possibly NATO, or through a coalition-of-the-willing approach.

Operations for a safe zone in Syria would similarly coordinate efforts with international partners, and could take advantage of the U.S. air base at Incirlik, Turkey, two U.K. bases in Cyprus, and nearby allied bases in Jordan, Turkey, and across the region.  As Max Boot and Michael Doran recently wrote, one option could begin in Aleppo—Syria’s second largest city—where rebels continue to battle regime forces.  “With American support,” they note, “Turkish troops could easily establish a corridor for humanitarian aid and military supplies.  Defeating the government’s forces in Aleppo would deal a serious blow to Mr. Assad and send a powerful signal to fence-sitters that the regime was dying.”

Conclusion

Syria’s armed opposition groups are bravely standing up to the Assad regime’s escalating use of force against its own people.  Now is the time for the United States to show comparable courage, and work with like-minded nations to create a safe zone with protected airspace, with the aim of halting the Assad regime’s campaign of indiscriminate violence, empowering moderate members of Syria’s armed opposition, and hastening the emergence of a post-Assad Syria that respects the impartial rule of law, protects the rights of minorities and women, and is at peace with its neighbors.

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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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