Syria (still) needs a no-fly-zone

A No-Fly Zone is not a solution to the conflict, but it is a proven means to restrict the killing.

In early 2011 anti-regime protests started in Libya, and also in Syria. In both cases the protests were met with deadly force, and escalated into armed uprisings. In the case of Libya, the UN Security Council authorised international military intervention to protect civilians. In Syria, it did not.

Today Libya is not stable, but it is no longer a war zone. Syria is still at war, with no end in sight.

Of the more than two million Syrian refugees who have fled their country, over fifteen thousand have sought safety in Libya.

Military intervention has risks. In NATO’s seven-month bombing war in Libya, it’s likely forty to seventy civilians were accidentally killed by NATO bombs according to The New York Times. According to Amnesty International, the number may be between 55 to 115 civilians killed by NATO bombs.

Weigh that toll against the toll in Syria, where in just over a week of aerial bombing in one city, Aleppo, Assad’s military killed over 300 people. On December 24 the Telegraph reported that as many as 480 people were said to have been killed, most of them civilians, including 86 children.

By the 29th, BBC News reported 517 killed by aircraft bombing Aleppo in the two weeks since December 15. According to The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, 151 of them were children.

The numbers crippled and maimed are more rarely reported.

In November a report on the child casualties of Syria’s war gave a toll of 11,420 children killed to the end of August 2013, out of a total of 113,735 civilians and combatants killed. The majority of children, 7,557 individuals, were reported killed by explosive weapons. Of those, 2,008 cases specified aerial bombardment: that’s 19 per cent of all children where a cause was recorded.

In June, arguing against mounting a No-Fly Zone operation in Syria, US Army general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that only about 10 per cent of casualties amongst the Syrian opposition were being inflicted by aircraft, the others being caused by artillery or direct fire.

How many lives lost by air attack does that 10 per cent indicate? It’s likely to mean over 10,000 people directly killed by aircraft.* And beyond direct killing, the forces of Assad and his allies also use aircraft for artillery spotting, and they rely heavily on air transport for resupply.

Syria has been an unwanted experiment in non-intervention, and the results are clear. Comparing events in Libya and Syria, there is objective evidence that while enforcing a No-Fly Zone early in the conflict might have led to civilian casualties numbering over a hundred, it would likely have prevented several thousands of killings by aircraft, and would have restricted the ability of Assad’s forces to kill on the ground.

It’s a truism that Syria’s war is complicated, and increasingly so. A No-Fly Zone is not a solution to the conflict, but it is a proven means to restrict the killing. The logic that eliminating chemical weapons from the conflict is a good thing applies all the more to conventional air bombardment as it has taken many more lives.

Enforcing a No-Fly Zone is not an easy option. It needs money, advanced technology, expertise, and bravery on the part of many of the volunteer combatants who have to see it through. Only a few nations have the resources needed to succeed.

Enforcing a No-Fly Zone is not politically easy. In the case of Syria, it requires willingness to defy Putin’s policy of obstruction in the UN Security Council. It requires making the case that defence of collective security requires and justifies this military action even in the absence of a Security Council resolution.

There is more than one way to impose a No-Fly Zone, from the regular air patrols seen in the 1990s over Iraq, to bombing air bases in response to attacks by Assad aircraft. A discussion in May at USIP explored some of the options and constraints.

The war is far from over. Assad’s air force may yet kill several thousands more, possibly tens of thousands more.

Syria still needs a No-Fly Zone.

Kellie Strom blogs at Air Force Amazons and tweets here


*The most recent UN report on violent deaths, commissioned by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, cross-referenced casualty counts by different organisations to arrive at a minimum count of 92,901 unique killings from March 15 2011 to April 30 2013. However this number includes combatants from both sides as well as civilians. One of the UN’s sources, the Violations Documentation Centre, or VDC, counts 10,182 violent deaths amongst regime forces up to April 30 2013, but there is likely to be up to half as many again from the other sources used for the report. (The VDC’s identifiable records for the period covered 62,386 individual killings, just over two-thirds of the total number identified in the UN report, a significant undercount.) On that basis, 10 per cent of non-government people killed would be approximately 7,700 killed by air attacks up to April 30 2013.

Today the VDC has records of 83,117 non-government people killed, 61,493 of them civilians and 21,606 anti-regime fighters. Its toll of regime forces killed is 12,018. Of the non-government people killed, 7,425 are identified as having been killed by warplanes. 1,017 are listed as killed by chemical weapons without means of delivery being named. 1,750 are listed as having been killed by explosions without shelling or aircraft being named. Others are listed as having been killed by shelling, by execution, by torture, or by other means. Bearing in mind that the VDC’s figures showed an undercount of a third when cross-checked with other sources for the UN OHCHR report, it is reasonable to conclude that likely over 10,000 people have been directly killed by aircraft in the Syrian war.

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28 Responses to “Syria (still) needs a no-fly-zone”

  1. treborc1

    None of this seems to bothered to many when we went into Iraq, so why should it bother us now. How many women and children did we kill and maim in Iraq on our crusade to get rid of Saddam to free the Oil.

    Wars will cause this and since we are good at wars, we now look at the air space sadly not our war and I’m sick of helping people to see those same people back in the same mess.
    Stay out.

  2. Liza Lane

    Why is this sort of right wing rubbish appearing in a blog called “Left Foot Forward”? Is this some kind of satire?

  3. ShuggyMcGlumpher

    Continuing this from Twitter, if you don’t mind? 140 characters is a bit limiting. The Resolution regarding Libya didn’t allow, neither in spirit nor in letter, for regime-change. It’s not any different from any other UN Resolution in that respect. I already know you don’t agree with this but there’s probably not much use in continuing with that line of argument because it isn’t me you have to persuade. You said Putin was being disingenuous. I dare say but it’s not a realistic account of the situation to pretend that only Russia are opposed. You don’t mention the Chinese, for example. The British Parliament said no – and the American Congress probably would have too. But there’s the more general comparison with Libya which is problematic, for the following reasons:

    1) It’s not an obvious case study in successful intervention, as the articles linked in this thread show. You’re effectively arguing that the failed state that Libya has become is less deadly than before. Even if that were so, can you not see that this is an absolutely impossible sell re: Syrian intervention?

    2) Syria’s army is much bigger than the Libyan one was under Gaddafi – just one of the reasons to doubt whether intervention would lead to a reduction in violence.

    3) Those who favour intervention are fond of pointing out that the consequences of the conflict here cannot be contained within Syria’s borders. I don’t disagree with that but the same is true of intervention, which is another reason why the Libyan comparison isn’t a good one. The Gaddafi regime was the diplomatically easier target. Here we have more international players who have an interest in the preservation of the Assad regime. The point of escalating a confrontation with them in order to hasten to demise of the Assad regime isn’t clear, since the benefits of having a post-Assad Syria are by no means obvious.

  4. Kellie Strom

    There are a few things getting bunched up here I think. I’m going to respond to just your first paragraph in this comment, then add further comments.

    My point from our Twitter discussion re. Putin was focused on the idea that NATO exceeded UNSC Resolution 1973 on Libya. To recap from Twitter, this is a distortion of history. The resolution authorised UN member states “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians… excluding a foreign occupation force…” It wasn’t limited to a No-Fly Zone, and didn’t exclude actions liable to end the regime. All UNSC members knew that the US and allies wanted a resolution that went beyond a No-Fly Zone, and that they identified Gadafi’s rule as the primary threat to civilians. This was made clear publicly prior to the vote by the US Ambassador to the UN. If any Permanent Member really didn’t want this outcome, they should have voted accordingly.

    Therefore we have to doubt that Russian and Chinese Government objections to a Chapter 7 Resolution for Syria are genuinely based on legalistic concerns about the implementation of Resolution 1973. Further, you’ll note that in the article I’m against allowing Putin’s obstruction to be the last word, and that I believe a No-Fly Zone “requires making the case that defence of collective security requires and justifies this military action even in the absence of a Security Council resolution.”

    The British Parliament is another matter. I believe MPs need to reconsider military action based on evidence of outcomes as explained in the article above. Similarly the US Congress, though I note that their approval is not needed in advance for the President to conduct military action.

  5. Kellie Strom

    On your three objections to the Libya comparison:

    1) To be precise, I’m arguing that fewer were killed or maimed due to the Libya intervention than otherwise would be the case. Remember that the Libyan protests began over a month before the intervention. In the time prior to the intervention hundreds had been killed, fighting was ongoing, and Benghazi and other areas were under opposition control or were contested. So that’s your “before” picture. From all the problems today, the “after” is much less violent, and Libya is of course incomparably better off compared to the counter-example of Syria.

    2) On the size of Assad’s forces: Back in August, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey made clear that the US could destroy Assad’s air force, even as he argued that doing so wouldn’t serve US interests. I accept his assessment of US military capacity, but reject his political and moral judgement on the issue. As to the size of Assad’s ground forces, he has needed external reinforcements in a way not seen in Libya, and reports are that these reinforcements, particularly from Hezbollah, are suffering heavy losses.

    3) The argument I’ve laid out for a No-Fly Zone is on the basis of saving lives, not to “hasten the demise of Assad.” There is no guarantee it would do so (see Iraq’s No-Fly Zone history) but it would limit his ability to kill to a degree, particularly in areas out of the control of his ground forces. On his international allies, I don’t think several thousand Syrian lives are a price worth paying just to encourage Iran to continue negotiations over their nuclear program, if that’s what you have in mind.

  6. ShuggyMcGlumpher

    Thanks. Regards 1) No, I understood the point you were making – I was suggesting that “save lives, create a failed state” (overstating but you know what I mean) isn’t a sellable strategy. Potential actors would want to imagine something more stable and predictable resulting from intervention. I’m assuming this was behind Obama’s obvious reluctance. A further point overlaps with 2 and 3. No, I wasn’t thinking of Iran’s nuclear programme so much – more the willingness of Assad’s allies to provide material support. Likely to accelerate rather than diminish following Western intervention surely?

  7. Kellie Strom

    “Save lives, create a failed state” doesn’t just overstate the Libya story, it wholly misrepresents it, as my earlier answer pointed out. A violent failed state was the start point, and a less violent failing/struggling state was the endpoint – endpoint of the military intervention at least, though not of Libya’s story.

    Similarly in Syria, there’s no question of an intervention creating a failed state, as it’s here already. Even if you hold a cynical view that rule by Assad is better than the alternative (not that there is only one single alternative) that option is unavailable as the regime has shown itself unable to control the territory even with help from Iran, from Iraqi militias recruited by Iran, and from Hezbollah. Government services have collapsed or been withdrawn. The scale of displacement and impoverishment of the population is enormous. It is indisputably a failed state. And aerial bombardment of civilian areas is one of the reasons for that.

    I don’t know the degree to which Assad’s allies would be able to accelerate material support in the face of a No-Fly Zone. Much reporting indicates they’re giving all they’ve got now, and it would make sense for them to do so as the chances of an intervention are greater in the long term than the short term. A No-Fly Zone would greatly complicate foreign support for Assad as it would interrupt air transport from abroad as well as internally.

  8. alaz

    Wake up, by doing this you will only be helping the extremist Jihadis spreading in the M.E and eventually to Europe and so on!!!!!!

  9. alaz

    Indeed…look at Libya now it’s a shamble…run by THUGS and hoodlums!

  10. Kellie Strom

    Anyone worried about Syria exporting Jihadis should read an article published yesterday in The National by Mohammed Habash, former member of the Syrian parliament. The headline is “Radicals are Assad’s best friends.” In it he writes of how in 2003 the Syrian regime encouraged the radicalisation of young men and bussed them to fight in Iraq. Survivors who inconveniently returned were jailed. And then after the protests began in 2011, Assad opened the jails, declaring an amnesty on 31 May. Assad’s survival would do nothing to protect Europe from terrorism.

    Anyone still clinging to the belief that Assad’s forces are busy fighting terrorists should listen to Eddie Mair’s BBC Radio 4 interview with surgeon Dr David Nott on his experiences treating wounded in Syria. The interview was recently posted on Audioboo. Dr Nott describes treating untold numbers of civilians who were deliberately targeted by regime snipers. He saw hardly any actual fighters hit by snipers. To him it was clear: the regime’s primary target was not terrorists, it was the civilian population.

  11. Kellie Strom

    I notice both of your links are from October. This one is from November. The story continues. Let’s hope 2014 brings more stories like the November one rather than like the October ones.

  12. Asteri

    Well, there is this from November which does not fill one with confidence.

    Right now Libya is having a Albania c. 1997 situation, if it continues its going to be another Somalia.

  13. Paul J

    What an ignorant, vile and loathsome article. Idiotic beyond belief.

    Libya is a total basket case, a f*cked up tribal and jihadi mad max hell hole. No-one can seriously holsd up the intervention in Libya as a success, and I say that as someone who reluctantly supported it.

    Furthermore the rebels in Syria are a damn sight worse than Assad. They are evil, despicable jihadis , and the world has been slowly forced to confront that unfortunate fact, despite the best will of the western MSM, who have done their upmost to hide it.
    The best result in Syria would now be a swift government victory followed by a long reconciliation process.

    People who still support the rebels this late on are idiots who lack the intellectual and emotional ability to change their minds. (Those who aren’t in it for the money or religious reasons, that is).

  14. Paul J

    Firstly, if Gaddafi had been left to his won devices, Libya wouldn’t be a failed state now, it would be a in a post-civil war situation. Tens of thousands died during the period we were bombing.

    Secondly, you ignore what the Russians would do. We don’t want to be al qeada’s airforce, and we don’t want to start WW3 on the account of a bunch of loathsome jihadi scumbags who want to make Syria Afghanistan on the Med.

  15. Paul J

    Oh, so al qeada in Iraq is all Assads fault now is it? Get the f*ck out of here. Even if he did sponsor them, that doesn’t mean they won’t target

    the west if they win.

    And as for Dr Nott, he would have rather more credibility if he wasn’t seen promoting an ex-ray obviously taken by Dr photoshop.

  16. Kellie Strom

    The further we go into speculating about Libya’s future, the further removed we are from the issue of the direct effects of the intervention. The fact remains that nothing since the intervention has matched what we saw in the month prior, both in the degree of state collapse during that month, and the level of violence directed at civilians by the regime in that month.

    The idea that Libya would now be ‘happy ever after’ land if only Gadafi had been given free rein is unconvincing. Syria demonstrates how dubious that notion is. If anything Libya would likely have been bloodier and more chaotic than Syria had there been no intervention, as prior to the intervention Gadafi had lost control of territory and of elements of government much more rapidly than was the case with the Syrian regime.

    ‘Happy ever after’ is not a realistic standard for any policy. We have to make a judgement on better or worse likely outcomes based on the best evidence available.

  17. Paul J

    .” We have to make a judgement on better or worse likely outcomes based on the best evidence available.”

    Exactly. That’s why no-one bar yourself ever makes the case that the Libyan intervention was a success anymore. It’s an obvious failure.
    Likewise, sensible people have made the judgement that Syria would be better off under Assad than the jihadi rebels.

    Your views are perverse and weird in 2014. Some of us can change our minds on a topic, you clearly don’t have that ability.

  18. Kellie Strom

    The article you link to is by Alan Kuperman. His previous writing on Libya is demonstrably dishonest. See here:

  19. Kellie Strom

    My judgement is made by comparing the high level of violence and disorder prior to the intervention with the lower level of both since the intervention, and also by comparing the current level of violence and disorder in Libya now, nearly three years after protests began, with the incrredibly higher level of violence and disorder in Syria at a similar distance from the start of protests there.

    In short I make my judgement by looking at evidence. Reading your comments here and elsewhere, you make your judgement by looking at Russia Today, Putin’s propaganda channel, and by reading the demonstrably dishonest Alan Kuperman. It is probably too much to hope that we should come to a common understanding.

  20. Paul J

    “low level of violence since the intervention” ?
    What would a high level of violence look like? if Gaddafi had won, there would likely be no violence at all. No-one in their right minds argues any more that the Libyan war was a success, not even the most hardcore neo-con or “liberal” interventionists. You’re in a minority of one as far as I can tell. Libya is bad and getting worse.

    If you take oil production as a proxy for economic stability, it rose to 80% of pre-war levels in the immediate aftermath of the war. It has since declined to nearer 20%. The place is a basket case. They lynched an American ambassador in Benghazi if you recall, a city full of armed men who had been rescued by NATO. None of them came to his aid, not one.

    And frankly i’m not in the least bit dependendent on RT for my views on Syria. I’ve been following the war in great detail for the last couple of years, without having to rely on sh8tty dishonest MSM crap to find out what’s going on. I suggest i know rather more about it than you do- the make up of the opposition forces ( majority jihadi, practically none secular), the early (at the very outset) outbreak of an armed sectarian insurrection, their aims (a sharia state where minorities have a legally subservient status). Not to mention the outcome of a rebel win (likely genocide for Allawites, AQ emboldenned and spreading).

    The peaceful revolution has long since devoured it’s children. This isn’t 2011 any longer.

    And that “takedown” you linked to below, it’s hardly authoritative, just a snark about quoting the NYT. The fact is, Gadaffi wasn’t indescriminately targeting civilains, the uprising was violent from the very outset (Like Syria), there were no “viagra fed troops” or African mercenaries flying in”. The whole sad story is an abject lesson in taking lying jihadi rebels are their word, media credulity, and a catastrophic lack of foresight.

    As for your final point, no, we will never agree, because we interpret facts differently.. You think that because AQ got some aid from Assad while the US was making noises about invading Syria 8 or 9 years ago, it means AQ are just fine, and won’t bother us again.

    You think that because there were peaceful, secular marches 3 years ago, those guys are still in the forefront of the revolt.
    You think a Libyan state in utter chaos is a good thing.
    You think the Syria rebels are decent people.
    You probably think that reading a spread of western, establishment MSM is a proper way to find out what’s going on in Syria.

    I know otherwise. So I have no interest in coming into a “common understanding” with you. You are too dumb, in the final analysis. Too ignorant, too incapable of admitting you are wrong, and what you fervently believed 3 years ago is now incorrect.

  21. Kellie Strom

    Your preferred measure of success or failure is oil production rather than human lives? Hm.

  22. Paul J

    Oh that really is a clever response, well done. You’re jolly good at this.aren’t you?
    I guess I have a particular contempt for people with highly vocal views who lack the intellectual ability to change their minds when the facts change. So, naturally, in my opinion you’re a worthless moron.

  23. Ander Elessedil

    Nice analysis.

    But I think that, even with a No-Fly Zone, the ground situation is beyond every control. Syria is on the way to become another Lebanon. A No-Fly Zone shall eliminate only the Assad’s aviation, not the countless militias, far more powerful and independent that that Libyans.

  24. neilcraig

    More calls for meddling by the totalitarian fascist politicians running the western countries.

    You lot have murdered hundreds of thousands, engaged in ethic cleansing, child sex slavery and the dissection of thousands of living human beings to steal their body organs.

    Can you name a single country that has benefited from NATO/Nazi bombing? Thought not, but clearly it doesn’t even slow you down.

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