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The Dangerous Simplicity Of the Interventionists

Advocacy for military intervention in Syria may be well-intentioned, but can it achieve the true objectives?
A Syrian Air Force fighter plane flies over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain during an air strike, as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province November 13, 2012. A Syrian warplane struck homes in the town of Ras al-Ain on Tuesday within sight of the Turkish border, pursuing an aerial bombardment to force out rebels and drawing a new warning from Ankara. The second day of jet strikes sent Syrians scurrying through the flimsy barbed-wire fence that divides Ras al-Ain from the Turkish

With news of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossing US President Barack Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons use and Israel’s airstrikes on Syrian territory comes another iteration of intervention advocacy in Washington and beyond.

The pro-intervention crowd has been quite vocal, and their arguments have become commonplace: “US credibility is at stake,” “implement a no-fly zone,” “arm the moderate rebel groups,” “create a humanitarian corridor,” “let’s stop the chemical weapons use” and so on.

Many of these voices are influential thinkers and experienced practitioners outside of the decision-making process who feel the slaughter occurring in Syria is unjustifiable. Others argue that US strategic interests are at stake. These arguments are usually well-intentioned, but that does not mean the United States and NATO should intervene in Syria. While the United States and NATO are undoubtedly capable of changing the balance — note that I didn’t say end the violence — in Syria, it is by no means easy.

That is the important part, it is not easy. Nevertheless, influential members of the pro-intervention crowd continue to gloss over what it entails to operate in the complex environment they so freely write about. Two areas are critical: military requirements and understanding the enormous social, cultural and political complexities of the Levant.

Not to say they should not be writing on these subjects. For many, they either have in-depth knowledge on one subject or the other — although some have neither. But that fact should be upfront and clear, and their focus must be applied to areas in which they have an abundance of expertise. It is precisely because of this expertise and influence that their opinions are listened to in the first place. By this, I mean that perhaps one should not be advocating for military operations and strategies that one does not truly grasp.

Pushing for a no-fly zone

For instance, the no-fly zone argument is familiar: Remove the threat posed by Assad’s airpower to Syrian civilians to allow for the establishment of humanitarian corridors and safe zones that can be supplied by friendly neighbors. This is the popular military operation advocated for by pro-interventionists. Largely because the United States and its allies successfully instituted variations of no-fly zones in Libya, Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia, and it supposedly avoids putting large numbers of troops in foreign war zones — no one is willing to argue for large troop numbers after the war weariness created by Iraq and Afghanistan.

In essence, since the United States and its allies have such unrivaled air capabilities it means they can easily destroy Syria’s dangerous air defense systems and succeed in protecting civilians. In light of the recent Israeli air incursions into Syria — with no Israeli casualties — many feel their argument has been vindicated. No mention is made of the potential ramifications of an Israeli involvement in Syria. These lines of thought are dangerously simplistic and merely advocate for an operational tool with no clear objective.

At "Abu Muqawama," blogger Dan Trombly did an excellent job explaining the very real differences between a US imposition of a no-fly zone and a few Israeli airstrikes on Syrian territory:

“You cannot create a persistent no-fly zone through repetitive raiding in the Israeli style, because these raids rely on minimizing time over Syrian airspace and avoiding air-to-air combat. No-fly zones, to be effective, must do precisely the opposite. You want your aircraft to spend as much time as practically possible over the airspace you are patrolling in order to deny enemy aircraft windows of opportunity to operate. This renders your aircraft vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire, which is why destroying [a] hostile IADS [integrated air defense system], commonly referred to as suppression of enemy air defense (or SEAD) is such a vital prerequisite to no-fly zones (and would involve, as in many other cases, massive amounts of standoff fire and more direct attacks by specialized SEAD strike aircraft).”

Basically, to establish a successful no-fly zone over Syria, it would require comprehensive and consistent air operations over a foreign territory. Indeed, this has been done successfully multiple times. But look closer. All of these operations had a variety of purposes and objectives. In the 1990s, Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch over Iraq were limited to static territory with no active insurgency. Southern Watch eventually required an influx of US troops to deter Iraqi forces that massed near the no-fly zone. Kosovo was really a consistent bombing campaign that required complete control of the skies. So was Bosnia, with a combination of a no-fly zone, air support for UN peacekeepers and the presence of NATO peacekeepers. Plus, the recent Libya model actually illuminates problems for the far more complex Syria model.

Those who advocate for no-fly zones in Syria tend to frame their arguments as a response to a humanitarian crisis. Therefore, as long as the civil war continues in Syria, a no-fly zone must be enforced to protect the innocents. Thus, this is an open-ended engagement akin to the length of the Iraqi no-fly zone, which inevitably ended with a US decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power. However, enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria indefinitely is not exactly a realistic option. One must first ask, what are the ends? This is where the murkiness between humanitarian intervention and regime change begins to show its face.

The basic purpose of a no-fly zone is to prohibit the enemy’s aircraft from operating over specific territory. If bound to this limited definition, it would mean the continuity of conflict on the ground, but without the benefit of airpower for the Syrian regime. In reality, pro-interventionists are not solely advocating for a no-fly zone. In order to protect civilians — NATO’s mandate in Libya — and end the carnage (the ultimate objective), interventionists are actually advocating for the United States to become the opposition’s air force to help defeat the Assad regime. This inevitably means the airspace must be controlled to allow for air interdiction (AI) — targeting enemy forces, weapons and supplies that can threaten the safe zones — and providing close air support (CAS) — airstrikes on hostile targets close to friendly forces — to rebel elements on the ground. This also means foreign ground advisers — or "boots on the ground" — must be present to assist the rebels and help coordinate precision airstrikes, especially in the urban environments of Syria that make it difficult to avoid collateral damage. Coordination implies unity of effort. And unlike Libya, the opposition elements on the ground are not politically and operationally unified, a significant point that is frequently overlooked

The consequence of no unity is that there is no command and control (C2) over the Syrian opposition’s efforts. Rebel factions therefore work at cross purposes and are unaware of the movements of others in different areas of the country.

In addition, since the opposition is not politically and operationally unified, who will the no-fly zones realistically be protecting? By instituting a no-fly zone, the United States and its allies will not only be protecting civilian population centers but also covering the advance — as in Libya — of a variety of opposition factions. These include groups which have been named terrorist organizations, notably the al-Qaeda affiliate known as Jabhat al-Nusra — which is reportedly the most capable faction militarily. Groups have also committed atrocities against civilians themselves, in effect making their perceived guardians complicit. These groups are even fighting one another.

Finally, no-fly zone advocacy does not address the variety of issues the opposition and international community faces in Syria. A no-fly zone is one instrument, or simply a way that requires a significant amount of resources for an open-ended period of time. It does not secure chemical weapons sites, which requires a large number of ground troops. It does not end the death and destruction in Syria. It does not address the differences between the various factions. It does not lead to the decisive defeat of the Assad regime. And it does not address the very real issues of Syria’s post-conflict environment — which will likely include warlordism, rampant crime, an absence of effective governance, re-establishing rule of law, ethnic cleansing and the necessity for reconciliation. Some of the operations mentioned earlier require the presence of international peacekeepers in the post-conflict environments to mitigate similar challenges. In light of the new Libyan government’s recent border problems, militia coercion, weapons proliferation and a general lack of security, it now appears that they could also use an international presence. (The Libyans preferred no Western presence on the ground).

Arming the opposition

Interventionists reluctant to call for a no-fly zone, instead, push for arming moderate elements of the rebellion. Ignored is that once arms are given to anyone, control over where they go, who uses them and who they are used against immediately disappears. There is no guarantee that arms will not flow to jihadi and extremist elements of the opposition or be used on civilians. Providing arms does not mean loyalty has been bought either, they might just prolong the civil war. Additionally, one question not asked is what type of arms advocates are precisely willing to provide, that is, heavy weaponry, MANPADs [man-portable air-defense systems] or just small arms. The types of arms floating around could have negative consequences down the road, as many flow into other conflict zones, such as Mali.

The common thread between no-fly zones, arming the rebels and the various other options being advocated for are that they are all considered limited military interventions. Just because they are “limited” does not mean they are good options. Decisions cannot be based solely on the costs — both monetary and human — they must also include well-defined objectives. If not, a slippery slope develops that leads to “mission creep.”


Simultaneously, do not expect those with a vested interest in seeing Assad remain in power to sit idly by. In fact, none of them are now. Syria has become the playground for a region-wide shadow war. Regional powers and their allies have used Syria’s civil war as an opportunity to gain strategic and ideological influence in a historically important Arab state. The presence of Hezbollah, Iran’s Quds and Revolutionary Guard forces, and Gulf money and weapons in Syria are all examples of this regional shadow war taking place. Outside influence has helped inflame internal sectarian, ethnic and ideological tensions. Divides have been created that did not necessarily exist before the revolution.

Furthermore, what are the second- and third-order effects of foreign powers inserting themselves into a civil war? Taking sides in an active civil war has ramifications of its own. The Lebanese Civil War is a pertinent and often forgotten example of what can happen to foreign actors who do not appear to be neutral. Israeli proxies and the occupation of southern Lebanon — nearly lasting 20 years — exacerbated the situation and ultimately led to the creation of Hezbollah. Western involvement resulted in the US embassy bombing, simultaneous bombings of US and French military barracks and kidnappings.

Comprehensive and realistic advocacy

The complexities I outlined above have been disregarded by many in the pro-interventionist camp. These simple prescriptions are by no means comprehensive, and cannot be passed off as realistic strategies because they avoid the hard questions. Not enough has been written on how to apply a well-formulated iterative process of matching ends, ways and means to the Syria problem. When this is done, then there can be a public debate on whether or not these options can make a positive difference in Syria. Action does not necessarily equate to a rectification of all problems in Syria and the region.

Advocates who are well-known and whose voices are listened to by decision-makers and the average citizen alike have a personal responsibility to be transparent, factually accurate and abundantly clear about the subjects they write on. No more so than when the implications of what they write can have an effect on public opinion, political will and people’s lives.

Kip Whittington is a research associate at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the National Defense University, Department of Defense or US government. On Twitter @KipTWhit

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