This is Part One of Peace Action’s multi-part series on U.S. Syria policy.
Choosing the Path of Peace in Syria
After five years of war, there is an urgent need for solutions that can save lives and bring peace to the war-torn country of Syria. Witnessing the humanitarian disaster should be unbearable to any human being with a heart. In cities like Damascus and Aleppo, some of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, whole neighborhoods with their homes, schools, and hospitals have been leveled. Human rights violations are committed daily by all parties to the conflict. Millions of people are being displaced, forced to live in crowded camps or strange lands far from home.
The scale of the suffering is staggering. More than 1 in 10 Syrians have been injured or killed since the beginning of war. Recent estimates of the Syrian loss of life range from 143,091 to 470,000. Deaths are caused by the conflict directly, and by the damage caused by the war: collapse of healthcare systems, limited access to medicine, poor sanitation, and food shortages. A central dynamic of this humanitarian crisis has been attacks on lifesaving medical care: Physicians for Human Rights has documented 336 attacks on medical facilities and deaths of 697 medical personnel. The conflict has also pushed poverty levels to 85%, and an estimated 750,000 children in Syria — half of the total number of children in Syria — have lost access to any formal education.
The global community, all people of conscience, must come together to call unambiguously for an end to the violence and violations of basic human rights. Polling from earlier this year shows that a majority of Syrians support a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict. Polls also show that Syrian refugees prefer an “end to the fighting” as the most important goal in the conflict, and despite the divided loyalties created by the war, one poll’s “respondents showed a remarkable willingness to help their fellow citizens, regardless of political affiliation.” Zaidoun al-Zoabi head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, spoke to CNN and offered a message, heartbreaking and clear, shared by many Syrians: “What have we done to endure such a bloody, stupid war?” al-Zoabi asked. “It is enough for us, we are so tired. So helpless… Please end this war, do something to end this war.”
To find sustainable solutions to the conflict we’ll need to separate the siren song of quick military fixes being promoted in the U.S., many of which could cause even greater violence, from real lasting peacemaking. We believe the path of peace is composed of relentless, full-time diplomatic push for a ceasefire agreement and a sustained effort to maintain that ceasefire and repair any breaches; intensive Syrian-led diplomacy for a political resolution; urgent humanitarian action; economic aid to stabilize the region; and an end to the foreign intervention and arms transfers helping to fuel the conflict. The complex multi-party proxy war that is being played out in Syria, where numerous nations are using the war to advance their divergent governmental interests, is causing much of the suffering. Those countries meddling in Syria, from the U.S. to Russia to various regional powers, should turn away from fanning the flames and support the Syrians in finding a political solution. Here in the U.S., grassroots action can push the U.S. away from false military solutions and onto the path of peace.
Unfortunately, most policymakers are primarily driven by short-sighted geopolitical interests; so much so that protecting civilians often takes a back seat. But among those of us who prioritize protecting civilian lives, reasonable people can disagree on the best ways to go about it. Some advocate military intervention on behalf of civilians given seemingly endless killing, others say that only diplomacy and humanitarian action can end the suffering and that more arms and bombs only add fuel to a raging fire. This series aims to make the case that focusing our efforts on diplomatic and humanitarian approaches to the conflict will be the most effective way to protect civilians and accelerate an end to the war and that military escalations will only prolong the suffering. But we acknowledge the instinct to protect Syrian civilians that unites many people in compassion and empathy, emotions that transcend borders and cross oceans.
This series will examine four common proposals for military escalation in Syria: no-fly zones, safe zones, bombing Syrian government forces, and increasing military support to opposition forces. It will then examine the role the U.S. can play in advancing diplomatic and humanitarian strategies that offer the best hope for ending the bloodshed and protecting civilians.
While the sections on military escalations will focus on the specifics of each proposal, it’s important to bear in mind the legality or potential lack thereof of these military approaches. All of them would require both congressional and United Nations approval, both of which could be difficult to obtain. In fact, the current U.S. military intervention in Syria is contrary to both U.S. and international law. Continuing to act without those legal mandates would add to the harmful perception around the world of the U.S. as a nation that seeks to impose its will militarily — a perception that fuels an anti-Americanism that has led to everything from nonviolent protests to the very the terrorism that the U.S. says it is trying to combat in the Middle East.
This post discusses one of the most high profile military proposals: a no-fly zone, which could escalate the war in complicated and unpredictable ways, and end up causing more suffering in Syria.
No-Fly Zones: An Easy Political Slogan, They Can Backfire Quickly
During the 2016 election cycle, candidates in both parties have casually bandied about the concept of a no-fly zone in Syria. In the third and final presidential debate, Chris Wallace, the debate moderator, asked a pointed question on the proposal for a no-fly zone in Syria, pointing out that President Obama opposes setting up a no-fly zone and General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that it could mean war with not only Syria, but Russia as well. Finishing his question, Wallace asked:
If you impose a no-fly zone — first of all, how do you respond to their concerns? Secondly, if you impose a no-fly zone and a Russian plane violates that, does President Clinton shoot that plane down?
Clinton responded by saying that while she is well aware of those legitimate concerns, she thinks “a no-fly zone could save lives and hasten the end of the conflict.” Later in the debate she expanded upon that, arguing that a no-fly zone would help the U.S. “gain some leverage on both the Syrian government and the Russians.”
In the debate, Clinton lacked the subtlety she displayed in recently leaked transcripts reported to be of her private speeches to Goldman Sachs. The speeches in general reveal, unsurprisingly, a highly intelligent foreign policy professional with a serious understanding of current geopolitics (albeit from a conventional D.C. security elite perspective). At the same time, the transcripts reveal concern about the simplistic thinking on no-fly zones Clinton herself appeared to be offering in the more public televised debate:
To have a no-fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas. So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we’re not putting our pilots at risk—you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians… So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians.
Clinton, speaking in her private political voice, is absolutely right. The term “no-fly zone” sounds like a tried and true, relatively simple fix; like a tourniquet, CPR, or the Heimlich maneuver. In reality it is a vague concept that awkwardly blends the political and military and that has only been experimented with four times: twice in Iraq, once in Bosnia, and most recently in Libya. Since the situation in Syria is most akin to the situation in Libya, what happened there in 2011 provides a prime example of what could go wrong in Syria.
Lessons from Libya: No-Fly Zones Can Increase Civilian Suffering
The imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya was sold to the American public as a necessary intervention to prevent Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s Prime Minister at the time, from massacring civilians. However, the humanitarian objective of the no-fly zone was quickly subsumed by the goal of facilitating regime change. In conjunction with a covert American program to arm Libyan militias, the NATO mission spent most of its time attacking Qaddafi forces and providing air cover to anti-Qaddafi forces that had almost as much of a penchant for war crimes as the pro-Qaddafi forces. The anti-Qaddafi forces NATO helped install engaged in crimes against humanity on a wide scale including ethnic cleansing.
Since the intervention, we’ve turned our back on a Libya that is far less safe for civilians than when we first intervened. By the end of the NATO air war, civilian casualties had skyrocketed and Libya had slipped into the failed state and safe haven for terrorist groups it is today. As Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International described it:
In today’s Libya [after the NATO intervention] the rule of the gun has taken hold. Armed groups and militias are running amok, launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas and committing widespread abuses, including war crimes, with complete impunity.
As the New York Times put it earlier this year, the current situation in Libya calls into question “whether the intervention prevented a humanitarian catastrophe or merely helped create one of a different kind.”
With a similarly brutal dictator in Syria, the CIA’s program to arm anti-Assad rebels, and the necessity of bombing a wide range of Syrian and Russian military assets in order to impose a no-fly zone, there’s no reason to believe that the result would be any better than it was in Libya.
No-Fly Zones and the World War III Problem
This brings us to the next major problem with imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, which some have dubbed “the World War III problem.” What of the scenario of confrontation with Russia that Chris Wallace brought up in his question about the no-fly zone? Would Russia, which has staked much of its reputation as a resurgent geopolitical player on its intervention in Syria, simply stand down in the face of this effort to “gain leverage” over Russia? Strong economic, cultural and military ties between Syria and Russia go back four decades and are only growing tighter. Russia is highly motivated to protect Russian military assets in Syria that allow it to project power beyond its strategic backyard.
Given this dynamic, bombing Syrian and Russian air defenses in Syria, which would be necessary to impose a no-fly zone, would likely provoke a military response from Russia. If a Russian plane then violated the no-fly zone and the president ordered it shot down, that would likely provoke another military response. Either scenario could easily lead to a dangerous cycle of escalation, potentially turning Syria’s proxy war into a direct war between two countries that maintain thousands of nuclear weapons.
Escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia fueled by both countries’ involvement in Syria, among other factors, has already caused serious, concrete policy damage. In October, shortly after talks between the U.S. and Russia over the Syrian conflict broke down, Russia suspended critical cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on joint nuclear weapons cleanup and non-proliferation programs. One analyst speculated, “at this rate, the next casualties could be the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (signed in 1987), New START (2010), the Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) Treaty (1996), and eventually the entire nuclear arms control and nonproliferation framework that has taken so many decades to build.”
Equally forebodingly, Russia is beefing up its already significant air defense systems in Syria. Karen De Young reported in the Washington Post in mid-October that “deployment of mobile and interchangeable S-400 and S-300 missile batteries, along with other short-range systems, now gives Russia the ability to shoot down planes and cruise missiles over at least 250 miles in all directions from western Syria, covering virtually all of that country as well as significant portions of Turkey, Israel, Jordan and the eastern Mediterranean.” Such air defenses, coupled with the Syrian and Russian air forces, are a huge obstacle to any no-fly zone. Were the U.S. to try to defeat them, the cost, risk, and potential for escalation would be far greater than earlier no-fly zones against relatively outdated militaries fielded in post-Gulf War Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya. Given the realities of modern high-tech air defenses, some military experts with U.S. Air Force experience have argued that the no-fly zone is an idea whose time has come and gone, saying, “Just as the shield was made obsolete by gunpowder-powered weapons, warfare has evolved beyond what the promise of the no-fly zone can provide.”
The Costs of a No-Fly Zone
After 15 years of war for the U.S. — wars that economists now estimate cost the U.S. public a staggering $5 trillion — the burden that the American people would bear has to be part of the equation. The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, addressed this by writing to Congress that a no-fly zone would take 70,000 U.S. military personnel and could cost a billion dollars a month to maintain. Some speculate that Dempsey was inflating those figures trying to push back against escalation boosters in Congress like Senator John McCain (R-AZ). But even if Dempsey were being that sly, when it comes to predicting the costs of unpredictable interventions, costs tend to be universally underestimated no matter what the political intent.
In Part Two of this series, we will examine a concept frequently discussed in tandem, and sometimes interchangeably, with no-fly zones: the so called “safe zone.”
Click here to read Part Two of this series: “Safe Zones” Aren’t Safe
Click here to read Part Three of this series: The Perils of Another American Quagmire