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.