Opinion: The humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and the need for a no-fly zone

Jonathan BrownOn Tuesday 7th April Planet Syria organised a global day of solidarity with Syrians campaigning against dictatorship and extremism. A coalition of Syrian civil and human rights activists including the famous White Helmets asked for people to remember Syria and send a message showing that they care. Over the last 4 years an amazing country I used to call home has been reduced to rubble and an amazing people ripped apart in one of the worst humanitarian disasters in a generation.

Syrians are calling for 2 steps to reverse the ever-worsening conflict: the implementation of a No Fly Zone followed by support for serious peace talks. The various ways in which such a no fly zone could be implemented are explained in further detail here.

The need for a no fly zone ought to be obvious, but can be summarised thus:

      1. Barrel bombs dropped on civilian targets by Assad’s air force are by a long way the biggest killer of civilians in the war.
      2. The indiscriminate targeting of civilian infrastructure makes it almost impossible for moderate, inclusive and responsive government to operate in the large swathes of the country that have thrown off Assad’s rule. This creates a political climate in which secretive, authoritarian and extremist organisations can gain the upper hand.
      3. The continued use of chlorine gas against civilian targets – a war crime – is made possible by the freedom the regime’s air force has to operate.
      4. US and allied airstrikes against the so called ‘Islamic State’ have freed up the regime to concentrate its firepower on the more moderate factions of the Syrian opposition i.e. the ‘people on the ground’ who will be needed to actually defeat the group.

One of the things that makes this conflict so painful to watch is that there are things we (the UK and collectively as an international community) could have done to have stopped it getting so bad. In February 2014, UN Security Council Resolution 2139 demanded that “all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs…” but there has been no attempt to enforce it.

The ‘Islamic State’ cannot win this war: it is too foreign, too hated and ironically too ambitious to be able to take over the whole of the country. The Assad regime, despite all the military support it receives from Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese Hezbollah cannot possibly re-establish effective control over the large parts of the country that have been free from its rule for years, whatever eventually happens to IS. And nor should we want it to. We are at serious risk of being distracted by IS’ grotesque social media pantomime from examining the far worse human rights record of the regime. IS in Syria is a symptom, not the root cause of the instability and suffering.

For peace talks to have any prospect of success, the range of opposition groups that will be required to participate need to know that they won’t be killed and that their existing territories are safe from aerial bombardment while they take part. A properly enforced no fly zone is a prerequisite for deescalating this war.

I hope Liberal Democrats will rise to the occasion and take a lead internationally, as we have done in the past. If anyone would like to join me on the march in London on Sunday 26th April, or would like to contact me regarding anything else they can do for Syrians, please do get in touch with me at [email protected].

* Jonathan Brown is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate of the Chichester Party and founder of the Liberal Democrats for Free Syria.

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  • No fly zones have a habit of escalating and leaving the situation worse than before (Libya)……

    Is it true that a large majority of the population actually support Assad? If so why does the ‘moderate’ call for negotiation insist that a pre-condition is Assad’s removal…

    Is there evidence that further western intervention would not result in the already fractured anti-Assad opposition becoming dominated by ISIS and other groups?

  • Tsar Nicholas 9th Apr '15 - 4:45pm

    Assad supposedly attacked his own people in Ghouta with chemical weapons in August 2013. We had posters on here – a baroness no less – saying that after the parliamentary vote to not go to war with Damascas, she felt ‘ashamed to be British.’

    But the fact is that Ghouta was a false flag and it was actually carried out by Islamists,w ho remain the biggest threat today to the Syrian population, not President Assad.

    One way to stop the Islamists is to cut off their access to weapons, money and training, but this would require no-fly zones over Washington DC, Langley, Virginia, London and Riyadh.

    You won’t get away with a no-fly zone in 2015. Unlike in 2011, when Clegg willingly went along with a no-fly zone being used to destroy the secular state of Libya and bring to power groups of Islamist warlords, you will not get past the Chinese and Russian vetoes on the UN Security Council. I suppose the Lib Dems could always get round this by launching World war 3. . .

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Apr '15 - 7:03pm

    @expats – there are different ways of introducing a no fly zone, as the link demonstrates. There is nothing inherantly escalatory about one. Indeed, several of the options could do quite the opposite.

    – A credible threat to destroy Assad’s aircraft on the ground, and/or the airports they’re launched from could mean that not a single bomb is dropped, and the barrel bombing comes to an end.

    – Admittedly that’s not very likely, but in 24 hours a barrage of cruise missiles could remove Assad’s ability to deply fixed-wing aircraft and demonstrate that any surviving helicopters would not last for much longer if they took off.

    And that’s it. That could be the end of it. The no fly zones over Iraq lasted years and years without being escalated. The one over the south of the country can be judged to be a failure, but the one over the north enabled the Kurds to develop one of the most stable and one of the safest parts of the region today.

    Is it true that a large majority of the population support Assad? With the state of security and the unwillingness of the regime to allow meaningful polling, it’s impossible to say, but it’s highly improbable. At the beginning of the uprising there were large demonstrations in some cities in favour of him, and clearly much of it was genuine. But the size of the anti-regime demonstrations in cities such as Homs, Hama, Aleppo and even Damascus demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that he is deeply unpopular. As do the millions of refugees who have much more freedom to speak their minds, if little else.

    The moderate opposition calls for his removal because he is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and because every time there has been a ceasfire and every time there have been peace talks the regime have escalate the arrest and torture of suspected political opponents. It is hard to see how he could be trusted not to kill anyone who has opposed him in the event of a political deal.

    Is there any evidence that western intervention would allow the opposition to be dominated by ISIS? Sort of. You can see that the opposite has happend. As the moderate groups struggled without funding and equipment, and the popular committees ruling liberated towns were bombed from the air, the better paid and better equipped ISIS gradually grew. When the regime launched mass gas attacks in the face of opposition advances in Damascus in 2013, the moderates expected that this ‘red line’ would mean something and that the regime would face consequences.

    The opposite happened: the regime got away with it and indeed, had its international standing enhanced by a new round of diplomacy. More Iranian and Iraqi soldiers and militiamen and the usual conventional weapons saw the regime capitalise on the moderate rebels’ crushing disillusionment.

    Tsar Nicholas’ unsubstantiated claims don’t deserve an answer. No one who isn’t an employee of the regime or RT seriously thinks the rebel groups had the means or the motive to launch multiple large scale chemical weapon attacks on opposition controlled suburbs.

  • Martin Land 9th Apr '15 - 7:11pm

    I think what we need is a mind our own business zone

  • A Social Liberal 9th Apr '15 - 7:52pm


    You do keep trotting out the Russia friendly propaganda. Only the far left voice the opinion that the war crime visited on East Ghouta was done so by Islamists, all the international institutions and nearly all governments know it was perpetrated by Assad.

    You probably know little about the delivery of chemical weapons, but everything to do with what used to be called NBC warfare is highly specialised, taking months and years of training. Indeed, the Czech NBC troops are all graduates. Because of the fast degradation of chemical agents, those agents have to be mixed shortly before being used and similarly the missiles disseminating those chemical agents must only be loaded, BY EXPERTS, shortly before those missiles are launched. Therefore the made up narrative of Isis/FSA or whoever coming across missiles loaded and ready for launch and then using them for their own end is, quite simply, silly.

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Apr '15 - 8:44pm

    @ Martin, that’s a very fine principle, but it’s not the only principle we should hold.

    – We believe in the right to intervene if we see someone about to be hit by a car. We believe in the right to intervene in abusive marriages. We believe in the right to intervene in the arrangements people make with their employers, requiring them to pay taxes that we use to fund social interventions. We believe in the right to intervene in the raising of children, requiring them to be educated, vaccinated, etc. In short, we believe in looking out for our neighbours.

    I’m not suggesting that political or even military intervention in the affairs of another country should be considered lightly or pursed very often. We ought to err on the side of caution, particularly given our knowledge of the fact that humanitarian intervention has been used as a cover for neoimperialist projects. But none of this means that intervention should never be considered.

    Liberal Democrats have supported the principle of humanitarian intervention in the past, and support Britian’s activte particpation in international arenas such as the UN, the EU, etc. I am arguing that we have a moral, as well as practical duty to enforce the UN resolution, not just because we want international law to matter, but because we have an obligation to our fellow humans.

  • Tsar Nicholas 9th Apr '15 - 9:34pm

    Previous posters believe that the Ghouta attack was carried out by Assad because they swallow uncritically the western media narrative. II feel sorry for you. In fact, I feel like saying “The matrix is all around you . . ”

    Here’s a few links to some evidence that contradicts the western propaganda.





    There have been so many false flags in western history that I can’t believe that people believe what they believe about them not happening.

    Remember the Maine (not blown up by the Spanish. Remember the Mexican-American war. Remember the supposed attack by the Poles on Gleiswitz in 1939 etc etc

  • A Social Liberal 9th Apr '15 - 10:41pm


    Those links you provided seem intent on proving that the Ghouta attacks didn’t happen. Show me some from non Russian sources that support your view and I will consider them. These links from a single source (a Russian? propaganda conspiracy site) don’t cut it.

  • Tsar Nicholas 9th Apr '15 - 10:54pm

    A Social Liberal

    Voltairenet is a French site run by French intellectual Thierry Meyssan. The clue is in the name.

  • Tsar Nicholas 9th Apr '15 - 11:07pm
  • Jonathan Brown 9th Apr '15 - 11:46pm

    However, as more evidence was gathered and examined in the days and weeks following the attacks (and the article linked to above), the case against the regime mounted. When the information gathered by the UN inspectors was included, the case against the Assad regime gets even stronger.

    “[T]hose weapons are fired by large, conspicuous launchers. For rebels to have carried out the attack, they would have had to organize an operation with weapons they are not known to have and of considerable scale, sophistication and secrecy — moving the launchers undetected into position in areas under strong government influence or control, keeping them in place unmolested for a sustained attack that would have generated extensive light and noise, and then successfully withdrawing them — all without being detected in any way.”

    Are we likely to have 100% confirmation of exactly who authorised the attacks or why? Not while the war continues. All we can do is follow the evidence.

    But anyway, the point of my article is not to give another opportunity for pro-Putin conspiracy theorists to trumpet their wares but to call for action to prevent ongoing human rights abuses and war crimes:

    “A chlorine attack in northwestern Syria on March 16 killed six people and poisoned a further 70 … The attacks took place around the rebel-controlled town of Sarmin, in Idlib region, where local people witnessed helicopters dropping barrels that released a suffocating gas on impact.” http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/syria-msf-supported-hospital-treats-victims-chlorine-gas-attack

    The rebels don’t have helicopters.

  • Tsar Nicholas 10th Apr '15 - 12:24am

    The rebels, who are referred to as Al Nusra on the Syrian side of the border, and ISIS on the Iraqi side have sophisticated equipment and arms. After all, it is being supplied by western powers and Saudi Arabia. Al-Nusra/ISIS do not have their own populations and economies churning out arms and vehicles and military craft.

    As for that phrase ‘pro-Putin conspiracy theorist’ I have to take issue. Firstly, any study of history will reveal that what happened in political life and geopolitics is by definition conspiracy, which is two or more people getting together to do plan something immoral or unlawful. Even your own rather fanciful view of what happened at Ghouta is a conspiracy theory since more than one person within the Assad administration must have arranged the gas attack.

    But back to the basic point. There will never be a no fly zone in Syria or over it or under it. Any proposal for this will not get past the Security Council after the disgraceful action of Britain under Clegg/Cameron, France and the US in 2011 over Libya. If anyone from NATO or the GCC tries to implement a no-fly zone over Syria there will be a general war as there nearly was in September 2013.

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Apr ’15 – 7:03pm……..

    The idea that ‘moderates’ will take the place of Assad is almost laughable….. There is no common structure, just disparate factions….Is an ‘average’ Iraqi better off without Saddam? Is an ‘average’ Libyan better off without Gaddafi?….
    You keep referring to lefties and pro Putin sentiments….The shame of the west is that it doesn’t seem to learn anything from past mistakes and that there are those, like you, who accept “xxxxxx bad, yyyyy good”….The ‘chemical attacks’ were questioned by UN officials (the author of one such report was quickly removed from her position) among others.. William Hague travelled the world waving “Chemical Assad” flags…..

    The west has shown that it is just as bad as those nasty Russians when it comes to twisting the facts to start wars…( Operation Plan 34-Alpha, Gulf of Tonkin, Saddam’s WMDs, etc.).

    .Hauge u

  • John McHugo 10th Apr '15 - 9:54am

    I wish people like Tsar Nicholas and Expats would identify themselves by their real name so that we can know who they really are. Why hide behind a pseudonym? It makes everyone who reads you suspect you have a hidden agenda. It would also be nice to know whether you have any connection with the Liberal Democrats and whether you have any credentials to back up your assertions.

    We carry a major share of responsibility for the mess that Syria is in, although there are also plenty of other culprits. For decades the Assads made sure there was no chance of a democratic opposition in Syria, with the result that Syrians today are between a rock and a hard place – Assad’s lot or ISIS etc.

    Yet even now, it is not too late and it need not be like that. Well done, Jonathan for waking us up and drawing attention to this.

    John McHugo
    (Chair, Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine, and author of Syria: A Recent History)

  • Tsar Nicholas 10th Apr '15 - 10:12am

    John McHugo

    To suggest that the validity of an argument is dependent on the identity of a person is to fall into what is known in logic as the genetic fallacy. 2+2 = 4 whether it is said by me or Nick Clegg.

    I have perfectly valid reasons to do with employment for not wishing to post via my real name – one reason i do not venture onto social media sites like Facebook. We live in an age, unfortunately, when the expression of opinion is often treated the way non-conformist farmers in Wales were treated in the 1860s for voting Liberal – the landlords saw to it that they lost their livelihoods.

    But you are right – I do have an agenda. I do not want to see my grandchildren incinerated in a nuclear war which is where we are heading at the present rate. In my opinion we are at an even more dangerous point than the Cuban Missile Crisis. there is shedloads of talk on here about the benefits of diversity but honestly, in 2015, we get less diversity of opinion and more deluded groupthink than during the entire Cold War.

  • Short of giving my real name and address, I have identified myself many times….Just so you know …I am 71 yo, recently returned from 15 years living in France to Notts, I have voted LibDem all my life excepting 1997 (and this May) ….I have no political axe to grind regarding the ME although I am very pro Palestinian….

    However, I have worked and lived in countries as disparate as Nigeria, and the USA and have learned that as far as governments go “One size does not fit all”….

    Perhaps, having seen the result of (to be charitable) well intentioned interference in Iraq, Libya and Syria you might not be so quick to condemn those who believe that, for all their faults, the regimes of Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad gave their citizens a far better deal than the results of outside interference has left…..

  • Tsar Nicholas, expats and Jedibeeftrix – thank you Tsar Nicholas and expats for telling us something about yourselves. Tsar Nicholas – if the reason is to do with your work, I fully understand and respect your reason not to give your name. I feel I may owe you an apology and I also respect what you both say.

    But yes, Jedibeeftrix the same applies to you (as it does to Social Liberal). Come on, tell us a little about yourselves and why you are moved to write on this issue.

    To turn to the substance of the issues – expats, you write that

    “Having seen the result of (to be charitable) well intentioned interference in Iraq, Libya and Syria, you might not be so quick to condemn those who believe that, for all their faults, the regimes of Saddam. Gaddafi and Assad gave their citizens a far better deal than the results of outside interference has left…”

    These are three very different cases. In both Syria and Libya uprisings occurred against the regime when it used brute force to crush what were initially peaceful demonstrations. These were spontaneous, and not caused by outside interference.

    In Libya there was then NATO intervention on humanitarian grounds which morphed into military support for regime change. In Syria, there was NO Western intervention, and the gradual slide to violence occurred without any help from us.

    There has, however, been plenty of foreign intervention in Syria – support for the more Islamist rebels from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc and support for the regime from Iran, Hizbullah and the Shi’ite dominated Iraqi government. These interventions have led to the conflict becoming less and less of a Syrian revolution and more and more a proxy conflict with an ever increasing sectarian tinge. Saudi Arabia is now virulently opposed to Da’ish (what we usually call ISIS- although that designation is offensive to Muslims, and so I won’t use it). But Da’ish’s ideology is essentially only a more extreme version of that which Saudi Arabia has been exporting to Sunni Muslims throughout the world since the oil boom of the 1970s. Pigeons have come home to roost.

    At the same time, Russia has also been involved on the Assad side.

    Like Jonathan, I know Syria a little. I first went there in 1974. I was in Damascus (in a private capacity – with a visa but without regime minders) last November/December. Syrians have not all descended into sectarianism, and there is a large majority in the middle who want a democratic society of the sort we all take for granted, rather than a state set up and run by religious militants. However, we re not doing anything to give those people hope.

    Over 200,000 Syrians have now died – the vast majority are Sunni Muslims. Most of them are casualties of the regime, which bombs indiscriminately those areas which slip out of its control. Add this to Palestine and other disasters and can we be surprised if many Sunni Muslims retreat into a sectarian identity which spawns what we call religious militancy?

    I spoke at the debate at our conference in September 2013 in favour of giving Clegg authority to commit our forces to military action if that proved appropriate. We were wrong to invade Iraq in the way that we did (that event, incidentally, made me join the Lib Dems). But we should not let Syria suffer as a result.

    Personally I am uncertain about what military intervention we should back in Syria, but we should be prepared to play the intervention card. We cannot leave Assad and Da’ish to destroy Syria. Humanitarian intervention in Syria today (as it was in Kosovo or Bosnia) would be fully justified. We should not tie our hands and refuse on principle to take part, just because of the hubris of Tony Blair and the idiocy of Iain Duncan-Smith in 2003.

  • John McHugo 10th Apr ’15 – 12:45pm…Thank you for your measured response (which is in contrast to some on LDV)…
    I mentioned ‘outside’ interference in Syria, not Western…and although many people may want a ‘democratic society I don’t believe this will happen….Assad commands the only Syrian force capable of taking on ISIS and I, further believe, that had his ability to fight been seriously compromised by the Obama/Cameron unilateral action, ISIS would have been in a far stronger position than now….
    IMO, as in Libya, the west would have destroyed the existing regime, and washed its hands of the resultant chaos….Cameron’s promises of ongoing assistance to the moderates in Libya have shown how hollow such promises turn out to be…..

  • Stephen Walpole 10th Apr '15 - 4:22pm

    John McHugo asked for a small something about myself.

    My name is Stephen Walpole. I served with HM forces for just under a decade in the 1980s and then went into youth work. After contracting a brain disease I retrained in IT. Eventually the industry found me unfit for work and so I went onto benefits.

    Although in army aviation when I served we were taught diverse military subjects including the storage, loading and dissemination of NBC and how to counter the various agents. We were given the opportunity to study and identify our opposite numbers on the other side of the Iron Wall. As with the soviets, so with the allied nations soldiers, since they were trained to soviet doctrine. This includes Syria.

    Thus I have knowledge that is still current about things military in the Middle East. My interest in the area is augmented by reading the press (western press – the Russian media cannot be trusted) and certain websites such as MidEastWeb (which I wholeheartedly recommend).

    I am a critical supporter of Israel, speaking out when they get it wrong. I also think highly of some of the Palestinian leaders, especially Mahmoud Abbas. I have no truck with terrorist organisations whilst they continue to perpetrate their atrocities. When Israel commits war crimes (and unlike most commentators on here I have had training in the Geneva Conventions and their application in times of war) I will say that they have, when the uninformed talk about ‘war crimes’ I will try to correct them.

  • Jonathan Brown 10th Apr '15 - 6:33pm

    @expats – “Assad commands the only Syrian force capable of taking on ISIS and I, further believe, that had his ability to fight been seriously compromised by the Obama/Cameron unilateral action, ISIS would have been in a far stronger position than now….”

    The point is, Assad does NOT command a force capable of taking on ISIS. The Syrian opposition is the only force to have seriously fought ISIS, and their successes in early 2014 in northern Syria can be seen to be a decisive factor in shifting ISIS’s attention to northern Iraq.

    The regime has occasionally bombed ISIS but hardly ever committed ground troops. Although I don’t believe there’s any evidence of an official alliance between ISIS and the regime, it obviously is the case that the regime paid ISIS millions of dollars (via middlement) for oil from the fields the group controlled, that around Aleppo regime forces and ISIS militias have avoided fighting each other while they take on the common enemy of the range of opposition groups. And of course, we shouldn’t forget the regime’s release of jihadist prisoners early on in this conflict.

    It’s also worth pointing out that much of the serious fighting for the regime is being done by Shi’ite militias from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon and led by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Very little of the official Syrian army has been committed to the battle against anyone because the regime does not trust its own soldiers.

    Had the moderate opposition groups been able to pay their fighters salaries more than a quarter of what ISIS were paying, had they had the weapons needed to fight the regime and defend their home towns and cities, had the regime not been able to bomb millions of people into fleeing the country, then it’s entirely plausible that Syrian civil society would have been able to resist the lure of ISIS.

    No one is pretending that there are any good options. Any best case scenario now almost certainly involves years more bloodshed. But we don’t need to keep compounding our mistakes.

  • John McHugo 11th Apr '15 - 8:37am

    Stephen Walpole – thank you for revealing who you are. Now I know something about you and your background that is relevant to this debate, I feel much more respect for your views and look forward to reading further posts by you.

  • Mario Hamad 12th Apr '15 - 8:58pm

    I fully support enforcing a No-Fly Zone over Syria. It is the only way to put an end to Assad’s aerial attacks against civilians- by far the biggest killer of people in Syria. Syrian civil society groups, medical volunteers and rescue workers are begging the international community to enforce the NFZ. These are the majority of people in Syria. The overwhelming majority, who are neither supporters of the regime nor ISIL. These people need our help and support.

    Britain is militarily and financially more than capable of successfully enforcing the NFZ without putting a single boot on the ground. There are no excuses for evading the Syrian situation. As a country committed to defending human rights and freedoms, the UK must act now to provide Syrian civilians with air cover from Assad’s attacks. If we as a country are going to let this genocide continue, then we might as well renounce our commitment to international human rights norms, remove ourselves from the UN Security Council, and be prepared to concede that our forefathers gave their lives in vein for values that we seem to no longer uphold. Let us not descend to that level of inhumanity and indifference. Let us instead stand up for justice and do the right thing. Yes to protecting civilians. Yes to a No-Fly Zone!

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