U.S. Options For A Syrian No-Fly Zone

The U.S. can and should act decisively in Syria in order to protect its national security interests and those of its allies.  The current exodus of refugees from Syria presents significant economic and security challenges to America’s allies in Europe and the Middle East, and directly benefits the Syrian Assad regime, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).  Continued U.S. inaction in the face of these strategic challenges will only exacerbate the security situation and empower America’s enemies and strategic competitors. The White House announced on October 30 small adjustments to U.S. implementation, such as adding less than fifty special operations forces to train and assist the Kurdish-Arab Force in northern Syria. These changes are insufficient to meet the strategic challenges. Continued U.S. inaction and half-measures will only exacerbate the security situation and empower America’s enemies and strategic competitors.

One course of action for the U.S. in the near term is to establish a No-Fly Zone over select areas of Syria. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford testified on U.S. strategy in the Middle East before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on October 27, 2015. Carter stated that he does not have a concept of operations for a no-fly zone in Syria to recommend. Dunford stated that it is possible to implement a no-fly zone in Syria but highlighted political and legal challenges, adding that a no-fly zone would divert resources from fighting ISIS. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have asked his staff to explore this option and its implementation.

The Assad regime has used the Syrian Arab Air Force (SAF) to indiscriminately and deliberately bomb civilian neighborhoods. Establishing a No-Fly Zone over certain locations in Syria will significantly reduce the Assad regime’s ability to conduct widespread bombing attacks against civilian areas.  Establishing a No-Fly Zone is more difficult with Russian aircraft engaged in Syria.  It is not impossible, however, and can be reasonable and plausible if certain conditions are set.

This backgrounder details three separate Courses of Action to establish a No-Fly Zone, as well as two additional courses of action for potential action other than a No-Fly Zone. The suggested No-Fly Zones are limited in geographic scope, covering only a relatively small portion of Syrian air space, and are examined to minimize resource requirements and risk to U.S. equipment and personnel while still presenting a viable and enforceable No-Fly Zone.  These are technical studies that explain in practical terms how the U.S. could establish No-Fly-Zones. The options presented here assume the support of Jordan and Turkey in order to put forth a set of options that minimize both cost and risk.

Tactically, establishing a No-Fly Zone would eliminate the use of barrel bombs from helicopters and gravity bombs from fixed wing aircraft against civilian population centers located in the No-Fly Zone. Barrel bombs are improvised explosive devices filled with shrapnel or Chlorine gas and dropped on civilian population centers. Eliminating Assad’s use of barrel bombs would immediately decrease civilian deaths caused by barrel bombs and gravity bombs, and would decrease pressure on civilian populations in rebel held areas to emigrate. Strategically, establishing a No-Fly Zone could deprive the Assad regime of its ability to continue its kill and depopulate strategy.

If the U.S. established a No-Fly Zone, the Assad regime might be forced to reassess its options. Although the Assad regime is publicly committed to a negotiated end to the conflict, and did participate in the Geneva II conference, in reality, Assad simply leverages his participation in peace talks to legitimize and extend his rule. If the U.S. is genuinely committed to a negotiated end to the conflict in Syria, establishing a No-Fly Zone could have the strategic impact of forcing Assad and his outside supporters to recalculate politically. Assad is unlikely to concede on political accommodations sufficiently to gain the support of opposition power-brokers as long as Russia’s support to Assad continues unabated. The current framework for negotiations does not favor U.S. interests because it will not produce a durable solution. The U.S. must therefore take action to change the parameters of ongoing negotiations for a political settlement. Establishing a No-Fly Zone is one option.

The situation in Syria is extremely dynamic, which makes developing detailed technical evaluations and recommendations of different possible U.S. actions difficult.  This paper was drafted largely before the Russian military intervention in Syria.  It has been substantially modified to reflect the escalation of Russian and now Iranian direct military involvement in Syria, but it is not possible to keep pace fully.  It now appears, for example, that the Russians are using cluster munitions in Aleppo, which have reportedly driven an additional 75,000 civilians from their homes.  If Russian aircraft continue to use this or similar techniques that victimize innocent Syrians, then the strategic impact of stopping or reducing the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs may well be considerably lessened. 

It is not clear how long the Russians will continue this approach or sustain the current level of direct military support to Assad.  It should certainly be a primary objective of the U.S. to persuade President Vladimir Putin to cease his military adventure in Syria. The U.S. must not allow Russia to define the parameters of negotiations in Syria through the use of force. The U.S. should therefore consider options to constrain Russia in Syria in order to achieve leverage in negotiations.

Any attempt to set up a No-Fly Zone that risks direct military conflict with Russia must of course be considered most carefully.  It is not enough to design methods of mitigating the risk of escalation or escalation counter-measures, although this paper considers both.  The U.S. must also weigh the probable benefits of a partial No-Fly Zone against the probable costs of limited conflict with Russia at the moment when the decision must be made