Opinion: A no-fly zone offers the best chance of success in Syria

The conflict in Syria has continued with greater or lesser public notice for more than two years now. In this time thousands have died, millions have been displaced within Syria and into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. And the international community has done little or nothing, hamstrung by Russian support for Assad, Chinese support for non-intervention, and ultimately, lack of western interest.

The large-scale chemical attack in a Damascus suburb claiming at least 300 lives at once changed everything and nothing. Everything, in that such an egregious violation of the laws of armed conflict, along with President Obama’s previous warnings of WMD use as a red line, commanded international attention and demanded an international response; nothing, in that only the scale of the casualties was new, and that 300 deaths, however horrible, were a fraction of the total lives lost in the conflict.

Both Washington and London have run the risk of talking themselves into a corner, and “dosomething-itis” is arguably the most dangerous of all bureaucratic diseases. For as much as every Prime Minister secretly craves the image of David Cameron forcefully arriving to take charge that graced the cover of yesterday’s Evening Standard, the reality is, that as complex as it is, looking purposeful and deciding to “bomb Assad” is the easy bit.

The much more difficult question is what comes next. And that rather depends on what the West’s desired outcome is.

A short, sharp shock to “punish” Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people is unlikely to accomplish very much. First, the Assad regime has made it brutally clear that it is going to stop at nothing in order to retain power in Damascus, and therefore if there is a future existential threat to the regime and its chemical weapons are available, I don’t doubt that they will be used if the regime thinks that they offer them an advantage.

Second, limited strikes are unlikely to do enough damage to significantly alter the balance of power between the Assad regime and the rebels. This would take a sustained campaign, including the destruction of the Syrian air defences and large-scale close air support of rebel ground troops – as we saw in Libya – bringing about, one would hope, a coup against Assad followed by a ceasefire and a national reconciliation process. But limited airstrikes are unlikely to deliver this.

Third, assuming that he weathers limited strikes, post-strike Assad is likely to be strengthened in the short-term within his own powerbase, for having successfully stood up to the Americans / French / Zionists and whoever else they seek to demonise. What is unlikely is that limited bombing could bring about a settlement.

Fourth, directly attacking the chemical weapons stockpiles and manufacturing plants – assuming that you can find them, and that they’re helpfully away from population centres – is not straightforward. Indeed, it carries the significant risk of a large-scale chemical agent release, which is obviously undesirable.

So if our intention is to force the Assad regime from power by coup or by military defeat, we have to have some sort of wide-ranging, sustained military engagement. Airstrikes on this model would be the lowest level of engagement likely to have any lasting success in overthrowing the regime. Assuming that the west are not interested in a ground war in Syria, especially against an opponent with a penchant for using chemical weapons, destruction of the Syrian air defence system, imposition of a no-fly zone along with tactical air support for the rebels offers the best hope of success.

* Toby Fenwick is a Research Associate of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has written extensively on the UK Trident programme, and served on the party’s last Trident Working Group. This article is written in a personal capacity.

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  • A no-fly zone would first require extensive military strikes against Syria to disable its existing air defences and limit its ability to put planes in the air.

  • Tony Harwood 29th Aug '13 - 4:53pm

    A “no fly zone” is a euphemism for direct military intervention on the side of the atomised and feuding rebel militias would quickly lead to an expansion and intensification of the conflict and associated bloodshed. This will inevitably condemn the region to decades of sectarian chaos and more dead and brutalised Syrians and Lebanese.

    The UK should not take sides in an increasingly sectarian civil war, with potentilly disastrous regional consequences, but instead work within the UN for peace without pre-conditions. The West’s geo-political aims for the region should not be built on the corpses of the Syrian people.

  • A Social Liberal 29th Aug '13 - 9:01pm

    Whilst the Syrians do have a modern air defence system thanks to the Russians, Western air powers are more than able to neutralise them with their mixture of HAARM (or the latest equivilent – can’t remember the name) and electronic countermeasures. The Israelis demonstrated the inabiity of the Syrians to protect themselves recently when the IAF struck convoys carrying chemical warfare stocks.

    The no-fly zone will give the anti Assad forces a greater ability to protect themselves against ground troops, but not against indirect fire weapons such as surface to surface missiles.

  • A Social Liberal

    So how come the Israeli’s get so upset about Hizbollah firing missiles if they are so sophisticated?

    Why also do you want to support the anti-Assad forces? What makes you think they will be better than him?

    The Kurds are not very happy at the moment with being ethnically cleansed or having their heads removed by the jihadiists. The Christians are also behind Assad – they feel safer

    It may also be that the Riussians are not too happy about the West bashing up their strategic friend in the ME so may take some revenge on some of the unpleasant friends we have – I would propose starting with Bahrain and then some of the other despotic Gulf States.

    This can easily escalate

  • A Social Liberal 29th Aug '13 - 11:16pm


    First, you seem to assume that the jihadis are the only ones opposing Assad. For the record, I equally object to the anti Assad forces who are committing atrocities and if it had been found that they had hit innocents with chemical weapons I would have asked for somilar actions against them.

    The Russians attack the Bahrainis in a fit of pique? How old are you?

  • A Social LIberal

    Coming from a man who has spent the day posting like a ‘Call of Duty’ gamer – saying how wonderful all the weapons we have are and what we can do with them but not considering the potential effects of that.

    Russia is protecting Syria for strategic regions, we didn’t help by mission creep in Libya last time they sided with us. There are many countries in the world that are killing their people and we give some of them arms.

    What Assad did, if he did it, was a disgrace, and he should end up in front of the ICC.

    You seem to be more interested in bombing an already suffering population with no view on outcome.

  • A Social Liberal 30th Aug '13 - 12:21am

    Do you actually believe that the Russians would bomb Bahrain or Saudi. if so you have a very strange grasp of what is actually happening in the world

  • A Social Liberal

    What do you think?

    An escalation is not ridiculous though:

    US attacks Syria, Syria/Hizbollah attacks Israel, Israel attacks Syria, Israel attacks Iran, Iran retaliates…….

  • Toby Fenwick 30th Aug '13 - 12:53pm

    Tony: Yes, and unashamedly so. I can’t see the circumstances under which the Assad regime will fall, either due to military defeat or a coup leading to a ceasefire. In both cases a regional peacekeeping force under UN auspices will be required, along with long term engagement to rebuild the Syrian state.

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