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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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!!!!!!

  5. alaz

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

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