WASHINGTON – I spent a year and a half enforcing “no-fly” zones over Iraq and the Balkans. My experiences convinced me that the United States should declare and enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. We would do well to remember the era of no-fly zones and what they did and didn’t do.
Those who oppose a no-fly zone cite the risks: Syria has a formidable air-defense network. Policymakers fear the prospect of U.S. pilots being shot down or dragged through the streets of Damascus. Moreover, many contend that a no-fly zone will not solve the conflict. Only by arming the rebels will the tide be turned, they say, and many of those rebels are jihadists with whom we do not want to partner.
Critics of a no-fly zone also fear a slippery slope of escalated military involvement that will lead to a quagmire.
These detractors miss the point, which is that a no-fly zone is only part of the solution. Its purpose is not to resolve the conflict but to prevent escalation, protect innocents and provide leverage to negotiations. In essence, a no-fly zone takes away a single tool of violence — the use of aviation — possessed by the oppressor.
Absent the no-fly zones in Bosnia, the Serbs and Croats would have wrought even more destruction than they did. Absent the no-fly zones in Iraq, one can imagine what Saddam Hussein’s air force would have done to the minority Kurds and Shiites. The situation in Syria is no different. Bashar Assad turned his military on his own citizens, and the tactical advantages his air force possesses are decisive.
The goal of the U.S. and its allies would be to lessen the continued descent into a bloodbath that, over the past two-plus years, has claimed more than 70,000 lives, displaced 3.6 million people inside Syria and forced about 1.3 million to seek refuge outside of Syria.
Americans are understandably chastened by the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. We witness the chaos of Libya after the use of air power without a subsequent commitment of ground forces, and we are even more reluctant to engage. Many advocate a pragmatic, “lead from behind” style, arguing that we must now reason with cold-blooded calculus. Such a view misunderstands our options and our ability to influence the situation in Syria.
The logic of the 1990s was that aggressive enforcement of no-fly zones would aid civilians victimized by these conflicts, prevent escalation and, with the threat of air strikes, end the conflicts more quickly. Those are limited objectives, but they are not insignificant.
Admittedly, air power is no panacea. We witnessed its limits during the Kosovo air campaign of 1999. Slobodan Milosevic called NATO’s bluff and didn’t back down after the first days of airstrikes. It is important to acknowledge the distinction between the power to deny or destroy and the power to seize or hold forcibly.
A no-fly zone is feasible. Yes, Syria possesses capable air defenses, but they are no match for U.S. air power. I flew missions over Sarajevo; over Pristina, Kosovo; over Nasiriyah and Mosul, Iraq. Not once during any of those air missions did I feel as threatened as I did than when I patrolled the highways of Iraq in a Humvee. We must not lose confidence out of fear by overestimating our opponent’s capabilities.
A no-fly zone will not immediately end the conflict, but neutralizing the Syrian air force will erase one of the regime’s decisive advantages and lead to a major turning point in the conflict. Doing so is not only morally right but also in our strategic interest. The spillover of violence into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq is already happening. Moreover, in a post-Assad Syria, the opposition will not forget which nations came to its aid. That was the case in Bosnia and Kosovo, and it has been the case throughout the Muslim world during the recent government upheavals. It was also the case in Iraq, until the occupation spiraled downward into a chaotic insurgency that we initially failed to grasp.
A no-fly zone will provide more options in working with the commander of the Free Syrian Army, Gen. Salim Idriss. With established “safe zones,” Syrian rebels could be trained inside Syria. It will open the door for building governance in liberated areas.
A no-fly zone does not address the questions of a major covert-action program and those consequent risks. But it can lessen the slaughter, and it positions the United States on the right side of the conflict, morally and strategically. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Eli Wiesel eloquently said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” We must take sides and not just pay lip service to a peaceful resolution.
Scott Cooper, a U.S. Marine aviator for 20 years, deployed five times to Iraq.