Syrian No-Fly Zone: No-Brainer or No Sense?

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WARD AL-KESWANI / AFP / Getty Images

Destruction in Sbeneh, south of the Syrian capital Damascus, on June 16. Much damage has been inflicted by the Syrian air force, which a no-fly zone would seek to ground

Lawmakers on Sunday pressed for President Obama to put a “no-fly zone” in place over Syria, even as U.S. military officers have expressed doubts over its effectiveness.

“We need to create a no-fly zone,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “We cannot take air power out of the equation.”

But, Pentagon officials say, that is unlikely to help the rebels or Syrian civilians caught in the cross fire of a brutal civil war pitting Bashar Assad against those fighting his family’s 40-plus years of autocratic rule. Last week, the U.N. estimated the two-year conflict has killed 93,000 people. “About 10% of the casualties that are being imposed on the Syrian opposition are occurring through the use of air power,” Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated in late April. “The other 90% are by direct fire or by artillery.”

The relatively small impact of imposing a no-fly zone could be the beginning of a slippery slope, Dempsey warned. “The question then becomes, if you eliminate one capability of a potential adversary,” he wondered, “will you be inclined to find yourself in a position to be asked to do more against the rest?”

The U.S. has flown no-fly zones over Iraq (for about a decade, before 2003’s invasion) and over Libya in 2011. They were, by and large, successful at their limited aims: keeping Saddam Hussein’s warplanes out of northern and southern Iraq, and offering Libyan rebels some protection from Muammar Gaddafi’s aircraft (but they also led to the deaths of 15 U.S. military personnel, and 11 others, when a pair of F-15 pilots downed a pair of U.S. Army UH-60 helicopters in 1994 after mistaking them for Soviet-built Iraqi helicopters … despite U.S. flags painted on their sides).

U.S. officials say a Syrian no-fly zone would be more dangerous for U.S. pilots than the one launched against Libya two years ago.

“Syria’s air-defense network at the start of the civil war ranked among the most capable and dense in the world, perhaps second only to North Korea’s and Russia’s,” a recent Air Force assessment said. “Located primarily along the Damascus-Homs-Aleppo corridor and the Mediterranean coast, the overlapping coverage of missiles and radars consisted of approximately 650 static air-defense sites, the most worrisome of which housed the SA-5 Gammon, having a range of 165 nautical miles and an altitude capability of 100,000 ft.”

Military expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested on Friday that the “most decisive action” the U.S. could take would be a no-fly zone. “For a no-fly zone to work, it has to be at least serious enough that Assad cannot fly fighters or helicopters without losing them and without losing his air bases if he persists. This takes fighters, AWAC-like aircraft, drones and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. It means a clearly observable commitment without U.N. [and almost certainly without Russian and Chinese] support. It may well mean U.S. combat losses.”

If that isn’t grim enough, Cordesman — who at one time served as an adviser to Senator John McCain, one of the strongest advocates of imposing a no-fly zone over Syria — said such a no-fly zone might have to escalate into a “no-move zone” — meaning the U.S. would attack, from the sky, any movement of Syrian military forces on the ground:

This is the quickest and most effective way to allow the rebels to defeat Assad if they can. It is the most costly, involves the most forces, and carries the highest risk of serious air combat and escalated Iranian and Hizballah intervention [although these seem certain to occur in any case]. However, it also means that Assad cannot use armor, move artillery, or even use civilian vehicles.

But those are military questions, with military answers. Looming far larger in the long term are the political questions, which were raised on Sunday by Dick Cheney, the Republican who served as Defense Secretary during the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, and as Vice President during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and much of the subsequent eight-year war and occupation.

“Syria has a fairly sophisticated anti-air capability — sophisticated ground-to-air missiles,” Cheney said of the challenge of imposing a no-fly zone on Fox News Sunday. “And so it’s a problem.”

He elaborated:

I think it’s important for the Administration to come back and specify what is the U.S. national interest here? And it seems to be, if the only reason you’re going is because now you have evidence that they used chemical weapons and killed 150 people with chemical weapons, is that our national interest? And I’m not sure that they have got it straight in their own minds what the objective is.

He should know.


Not my area of expertise, obviously, but my guess is this:  having air defenses just behind Russia and North Korea in terms of capability means only that... Russia has a massive and sophisticated air defense and that the drop off to North Korea is.  It's akin to putting Kobe Bryant, a ten year old girl and me in a room and ranking our basketball skill.  I come in third, but Bryant is way better than the 10 year old.


Russia will not allow the creation of a no-fly zone over Syria, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Monday.

He added that Russia’s position on no-fly zones was clear and fundamental.

“All these maneuvers linked to no-fly zones and various kinds of humanitarian corridors are a direct consequence of disrespect for international law. Libya was a concrete example of how such zones are introduced and how such decisions are implemented. We do not want the scenario to repeat with regards to the Syrian conflict. We are not going to allow this scenario in principle,” Lukashevich explained.

The diplomat said that all claims and assertions that the American colleagues were carrying out preparatory works in the territory of Jordan were also direct violations of international law.

"We will adhere to our stance,” Lukashevich emphasized.


Syria, the next nail in the West's Economic coffin.

Why is it that western governments get it so horribly wrong and their eastern counterparts get it so overridingly right? For over the last quarter of a century there has been two wars going on – one military and the other economic. The irony of the former is that it has also been economic under the guise of war. Indeed, has anyone ever wondered why China has marched on in economic terms and why the West has decisively gone backwards? Using common sense gives us great insights into what has happened. Whereas China has not gone to what is commonly known as conventional War, the USA, UK and its western allies have. Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank economist and others have estimated recently that the real cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars at the end for the USA alone will be in the range $4 trillion to $6 trillion. To put matters into perspective the United Nations considers that $30 billion a year would end world hunger. Therefore for the average of $5 trillion, why not end world hunger for 167 years? But these Wars have cost the UK dearly also and some place the costs at the end to over £100 billion (or around $150 billion). For other western allies collectively the Wars have most probably cost them at least $50 billion and a total projected cost to the West of between $4.2 trillion and $6.2 trillion. But if we add in the Wars that the West has been involved with since the end of WW2 in real terms, the cost to the West moves towards $10 trillion. Therefore whilst the West has been going to War and countries like China have not, the West has got poorer by the year and where China is marching on to eventual Economic supremacy. Add in again the $15 trillion of Western bank debt and we can see why our governments have got it so horribly wrong and why China et al have got it so right. Indeed, whilst China has been building up its nation through the economic war of the last quarter of century, we in the West have been fighting the wrong Wars, even it has to be said unfortunately for our servicemen who died in fighting for our own kind of western War. Which politicians have intelligently run their nations it has to be asked?

Dr David Hill
Chief Executive
World Innovation Foundation


[Last week, the UN estimated the two-year conflict has killed 93,000 people. “About 10% of the casualties that are being imposed on the Syrian opposition are occurring through the use of air power,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated in late April. “The other 90% are by direct fire or by artillery.”]

I suppose we could give the Syrian opposition all our used, high mileage, unarmored humvees with a few TOW missiles.  Of course they might fire the missiles into the air to celebrate and that's probably 8K to 10K a pop.

Once again a "free" population is probably more dangerous than an oppressed (controlled) population to our national interests so we find ourselves on the righteous side even if it hurts us in the long run.  Iran was the same in reverse back in the day... especially after we corked (plugged?) Saddam and let Iran run amuck with no monkey on their back.  It seems like we can't bury our heads and get respect, we can't go all in and get respect, and we can't go half way and get respect.  I say bomb Fiji.  Their air defenses can't be that good.


@destor23 How much would a no-fly zone cost? ... 50 million dollars a day? What if an F-15 gets downed by an S-300 which is armed by Iranians? (Which is very likely, seeing how pathetic the American air force is becoming in terms of technology...) We go to war with them, spend years fighting Iran/Syria and who knows what spending countless millions, and then end up trying to stabilize three different rouge states. (Like Afghanistan and Iraq, weren't enough...) Obama (the ape and chief) is pulling himself into a conflict so catastrophic, America will never recover. 


@destor23 Unfortunately your guess and your analogy are inaccurate.  North Korea has a formidable air defense network, as well as other anti-access and area-denial capabilities.  The hidden factor is that even if you were completely right, an AD umbrella doesn't have to particularly powerful to almost shut down our willingness to accept the requisite losses vs what we achieve.  How many billions of dollars worth of airframes and pilots are we willing to lose to keep the Syrian air force grounded?  Are we willing to lose ten aircraft, with three pilots KIA and two more captured?  How about  5 planes and one pilot each killed and captured?  Is our political leadership so invested that they would maintain a no-fly zone through video footage of Hezbollah militants dancing on top of a downed F-18, or grainy footage of a beat-up captured pilot giving a forced confession?   Syria doesn't need to be able to "turn the sky into lead" to impose those kind of costs; we just have to decide if we are willing to pay them.


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