Two Perspectives: The Case for a No-Fly Zone in Syria
Editor's Note: This is one of two articles by David Hervey on U.S. intervention in Syria, the other being "Syria and the Neoconservative Case for Doing Nothing."
By David Hervey
Policymakers and observers on all sides of American political debates agree that Russian and Syrian bombing of civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere is unacceptable. However, those same people are at a loss for potential solutions to the humanitarian crisis. The most apparent option -- used in similar situations in Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya -- is a no-fly zone. This would prohibit Russian and Syrian aircraft from flying in certain areas, thereby preventing further bombing. Despite the fact that it would stop the crisis, this is a controversial proposal. Many have pointed out that a no-fly zone in Syria would bring the United States into direct conflict with Russia. Senator Rand Paul even said, “it is a recipe for disaster, it is a recipe for World War Three.” This argument, however, assumes that a no-fly zone in Syria would inevitably lead to Russia escalating the conflict in ways that would be detrimental to the United States.
The term used by many experts for this phenomenon is “escalation dominance.” A RAND corporation study defines escalation dominance as “a condition in which a combatant has the ability to escalate a conflict in ways that will be disadvantageous or costly to the adversary while the adversary cannot do the same in return.” Specifically applied to countering the Russian intervention in Syria, this means that, in response to American involvement, Russia could and would respond with cyberattacks, kinetic attacks on American forces in the region, or even attacks on NATO allies in Eastern Europe. However, in a recent article, Thanassis Cambanis, a journalist and think tank fellow, points out that the presence of Russian escalation dominance in Syria is a guess rather than an established fact.
Russia’s escalation dominance, or lack thereof, ought to be determinable from the facts on the ground. Judging from estimates published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, there are only ten Russian aircraft in Syria, compared to dozens of French and American aircraft stationed nearby. There is also a qualitative difference between the newer, faster, better-armed American and French aircraft and the older, lower-quality Russian jets. Admittedly, this will change once the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, arrives off the coast of Syria, but there is significant reason to believe that its effectiveness will be severely hampered by technical issues and a shortage of experienced pilots.
Judging from this, it is quite likely that the Russian forces will be deterred from risking an engagement in the first place, knowing that it will likely end in an embarrassing defeat for Russia. In fact, Russia has already been deterred from escalating its involvement in Syria. Last November, after Russian jets flew through Turkish airspace and did not change their course despite repeated warnings, the Turkish military shot one of the planes down. This incident and its aftermath contain two important lessons. First, there is a danger that Russian forces will not find the warnings of other countries to be credible. This is a danger to deterrence, and was what necessitated the downing of the Russian jet after its pilot disregarded Turkish warnings. On the other hand, there have not been serious issues with Russian jets straying into Turkish territory since that incident. The second lesson, and the more important one, is that Russia will not necessarily respond forcefully to the shooting down of one of its jets. Russia suspended a visa program, introduced economic sanctions, and dispatched missile launchers (which have not been used) to Syria, but Russia did not respond with attacks against Turkish forces or any of Turkey’s NATO allies.
Similarly, Bashar Assad’s Syrian government has not responded to provocation by other states with escalation. Israel has carried out several raids on military targets in Turkey, most recently an attack in 2013 against a convoy bringing arms to Hezbollah. Assad’s response to the attack was mostly rhetoric. Not only does this show that the Syrian government is unwilling or unable to retaliate to provocations, but it shows that Syria’s air defense system is somewhat porous. This is perhaps more important since an effective air defense system could make the frequent air patrols necessary to enforce a no-fly zone too dangerous to be feasible. Admittedly, Russia has moved more advanced air-defense missiles to its base in Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. However, the presence of these missiles does not mean that the intelligence, radar, and communication infrastructure exists that would be necessary for their operation.
Beyond simply declaring a no-fly zone, America and its allies have some other options. America could effectively institute a no-fly zone by supplying Syrian rebels and Kurdish Peshmerga with anti-air missiles. The United States did something very similar during the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, supplying portable anti-aircraft missiles to Mujahideen rebels. These missiles were primarily intended for use against Soviet helicopters, but are also proven to be effective against the same model of fighter jet that Assad’s forces are using in Syria. Supplying anti-air missiles to Syrian rebels runs the risk of some of those missiles falling into the hands of jihadists. However, it would be significantly less risky, and less likely to provoke Russia, than enforcing a no-fly zone with American planes. Given the risks of losing control of the missiles and the overstatement of the risks of a no-fly zone, this would clearly be a second choice, but would address some of the concerns of those who, like Sen. Paul, are concerned about provoking Russia.
Another more novel but also probably more controversial option would be to respond to each attack on civilians in Aleppo with attacks on Syrian military targets. These attacks would have to be on targets in areas contested by moderate rebels but not IS, so that IS would be prevented from being the beneficiaries of US airstrikes. The good news is that there are many potential targets that are not near IS-held areas. By matching each Russian or Syrian attack on civilians with an attack on Syrian military targets, the United States could change the cost/benefit calculus of Russian and Syrian forces such that the cost, specifically the consequence of retaliatory attacks, would outweigh the benefit and therefore make attacks against civilians too costly to continue. This approach would have its benefits -- it would not put American forces in direct conflict with Russian forces in the same way as a no-fly zone would. Instead, the conflict would be between American and Syrian forces. Furthermore, it would directly weaken the Assad regime. On the other hand, it would likely be a hard-sell politically to an electorate that is tired of Middle Eastern wars and sees little compelling reason to attack another country.
This leaves a no-fly zone as the option of moderation. The humanitarian situation in Aleppo and elsewhere demands action, and the best option available is declaring a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas. This would specifically allow for flights and airstrikes on targets in IS-held territory, which all countries involved agree are necessary. The assumptions of those who oppose a no-fly zone in Syria must be challenged, and there is not enough evidence on their side for them to survive that challenge. While a no-fly zone would certainly be provocative, Russia would not be willing to risk a major war to assist the Assad regime, especially when the first events of any such war would be the defeat of the Russian forces assisting Assad. Sen. Paul’s assertion that a no-fly zone would cause a world war makes for a good sound bite, but it is not grounded in facts. The only way to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo is to stop the bombing, and the only way to stop the bombing is to deter Russian and Syrian forces from flying combat missions