A Syrian No Fly Zone?


2015-11-02 The Russian intervention in Syria represents strategic change for the region.

Now Russia is backing the sovereign government of Syria, and any U.S. actions in the North of Syria would now come into conflict with both normal UN practice and possible Russian retaliation.

In other words, the Russians are in a military partnership with Syria their joint forces  have every legal right to direct combat action against all enemies including the U.S. military.

And now President Obama has decided to up the ante and invade Syria.

The U.S. will send a small number of U.S. special operations forces into Syria as part of a shift in its strategy against ISIS, White House officials announced Friday.

President Barack Obama has authorized a contingent of fewer than 50 commandos to deploy into northern Syria and work with moderate opposition forces who are fighting the militants.

While the White House has consistently said it would not put U.S. boots on the ground, White House spokesman Josh Earnest insisted that they will be there in a “train, advise and assist mission” — and not in a combat role.

“It will not be their responsibility to lead the charge up the hill,” he said.

But he acknowledged they will be in a perilous situation: “There is no denying the amount of risk they are taking on here.”

The President’s actions threaten to put  U.S, forces directly in military conflict with, Syria, Russia and  Iran, just after the “breakthrough” nuclear agreement with Iran which was supposed to herald a “new day” in the relationship.

Some have suggested that a better alternative would be to establish a ‘no fly zone” over Northern Syria to go after ISIS and pursue other objectives, including undercutting the regime of Assad.

Secretary of State Kerry has asked his staff to look into doing so, and presidential candidates including Hillary Clinton and various Republican candidates, which include Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Lindsay Graham, John Katich, and Marco Rubio. 

But does doing so make any sense and what would be the realistic strategic purpose of a no fly zone in contested Syria?

 Protest in Kafranbel in northwest Syria, March 22, 2015
Protest in Kafranbel in northwest Syria, March 22, 2015

In a briefing by Lt. General (Retired) Dave Deptula, the question of a Syrian no fly zone was examined carefully when it first bubbled up as a popular antidote to the disintegration of Syria.

The presentation to the U.S. Institute of Peace, dated May 29, 2014 but updated recently for this article, Deptula highlighted a number of key considerations, but really boil down to a direct question: what are the strategic objectives for such an action?

He cautioned that a NFZ is not a strategy or a “silver bullet” but needs to be part of a strategy with well defined objectives.

It is not a cheap alternative to “boots on the ground,” and can not be executed without bases from which to operate, logistics adequate to support the effort, and air and missile defense capabilities to provide for asset protection.

And given Syrian missile defense systems, to say nothing of the Russians, this is not a low tech, A-10 type of engagement.

The execution of a NFZ needs to be correlated with a clear definition of the end state of such an operation.

And the core question of under whose authority such a NFZ would be established is crucial as well.

Put bluntly, there is a need to define the “why” before moving to the “how.”

One could clearly add that with the Russians entering the fray on the clear side of the legitimate government of Syria, the why as well as the how become more difficult to answer, but even more important to do so.