The No-Fly Zone Doesn't Fly
Washington is marking the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in an unusual way: with talk of a new war, this time in Syria. Following unconfirmed rumors of a chemical attack, Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement calling for “the provision of arms to vetted Syrian opposition groups, targeted strikes against Assad’s aircraft and SCUD missile batteries on the ground, and the establishment of safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians and opposition groups.”
Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, then told Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin that he believes “there should be the next ratcheting up of military effort and that would include going after some of Syria's air defenses.” He suggested, in agreement with earlier testimony by NATO head Admiral James Stavridis, that antiaircraft missiles could be placed on the Turkish border to create a no-fly zone in northern Syria without actually entering Syrian territory: “It is a way without putting boots on the ground and in a way that would be fairly cautious, that would put additional pressure on Assad.”
There are two problems with the no-fly zone idea. The first is that it is not “fairly cautious”—it still would be an act of war, regardless of whether troops ever enter Syrian territory. It would make the United States and Turkey parties to the conflict, and Syria could retaliate against them, likely resulting in a broader war. America will also perceive an element of responsibility for the fate of Syrians who flee to the no-fly zone. An atrocity by Syrian ground forces in the no-fly zone would cause an international outcry, potentially leading to a counterattack into Syria and the expansion of the war’s scope and goals. A no-fly zone increases the likelihood of deeper U.S. involvement, yet it does not address any of America's primary interests in the Syrian conflict—it does not secure Assad's chemical weapons, reduce the risk of the conflict spreading through the region, or cut the influence of Iran and Hezbollah (on Assad's side) and Al Qaeda sympathizers (on the rebel side).
Second, it is not clear what difference a no-fly zone would make. Aircraft and helicopters are not superweapons—they offer advantages to those that have them, but they aren’t a dramatic boost in the gritty, close-quarters urban fighting and ambush warfare seen so far in Syria. They also aren’t as effective as artillery in targeting civilians, as Assad’s father Hafez already demonstrated. The only major benefit aircraft offer Assad is that they are a symbol of an effective and powerful military. To the extent that wars are fought with symbols, it is true that Assad will face more pressure under a no-fly zone.
The most serious problem with a no-fly zone is thus strategic. War is, after all, the art of using violence to make the enemy do our will. What do we will in Syria, and will a no-fly zone compel Syria to do it? Admiral Stavridis echoed ambitious yet common opinion when he suggested the no-fly zone would “be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime.” Whatever the merits of these two goals, the pressure a no-fly zone creates only advances them indirectly. Nobody is arguing that the loss of a few miles of airspace would make a dictator that has jailed, tortured or killed tens of thousands of his own countrymen see the error of his ways and resign. The theory is rather that the elites around Assad will fear rising international pressure—or a foreign invasion—and depose him. Yet many of these elites get their power from their ties to Assad, and would be hesitant to abandon him. The threat of invasion, meanwhile, is not very credible since few believe a general war serves U.S. interests—even the ultra-hawkish senator Graham only favors a rather limited ground intervention.The elites won’t be terrified, and Assad isn’t likely to be forced out. A no-fly zone merely allows us to continue failing to achieve our goals, but to work harder as we fail.