No-Fly Zones: Bad Ideas Begetting Worse
It’s been a while since there’s been a post about intervention in Syria, but this piece from Michael Moran demands a response if only for exemplifying the obsession and stranger mythology associated with no-fly zones.
To begin with, Moran leads off with the old invocation of Bosnia. He does so in a way, though, that makes about the worst possible case for the policy he then outlines:
But it struck me recently that it was at about this point in 1992 that NATO finally established a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Hercegovina, about 11 months after the event now recognized as the start of that war, a mortar attack on Sarajevo that killed 16 shoppers in a Muslim neighborhood.
Remember, after 11 months of ethnic cleansing – not a bad term for what the Assad regime is currently attempting on the unmeltable ethnic pot that is Syria – Bosnia’s darkest days were most definitely ahead.
Concentration camps, like the one exposed by The Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy at Omarska, were already known to exist.
But the massacres at Srebrenica, the destruction of the ancient bridge of Mostar, the killing thousands in the siege of Sarajevo by snipers and artillery barrage, and the score settling murders and rapes and other atrocities committed by all three sides all over the land continued for three more years before the dictators bluff was finally called.
Why should we care about Syria? Well, that’s a post for a less intelligent audience, I hope.
So, full well acknowledging that Bosnia’s civil war by many metrics got worse, and that atrocities by the sides the no-fly zone supported also increased, Moran argues for a no-fly zone, with the implication – later explicitly stated – that a no-fly zone would not in fact be enough to meaningfully change the situation in Syria. If this is the hook to an argument that is supposed to impress the “intelligent” audience, I would hate to see what Moran has in store for those he finds unworthy.
Operation Deny Flight also turned out to be not particularly useful. As Moran acknowledges, violence continued and accelerated in many parts of the country, demanding the expansion of a no-fly zone into close air support strikes, and U.S. sanctioning of a private military contractor assisting the Croatian military as it launched a massive offensive to help eject Serb forces from Bosnia. Deny Flight proved utterly ineffective in noticeably resolving or expediting the conflict in Bosnia, unless, of course, one considers a no-fly zone a sort of gateway drug into the harder stuff of actively conducting airstrikes against ground military capability and sponsoring the mobilization of superior combat forces on land.
Remember, the question is Syria is not a purely military one, it’s about momentum. If the outside world remains outside, Assad’s well-armed regime, fearing reprisals, has a good chance of wearing down resistance and restoring its reign of terror. But dictators, at least in recent history, don’t survive no-fly zones — whether or not they ever truly tip the battlefield balance.
Trying to doge the issue of actual military efficacy by invoking nebulous “momentum,” along with leadership or seriousness is a tired cliche of interventionist rhetoric, but here it is again. Dictators survive no-fly zones. Leaving aside Deny Flight, which was never about ending a dictatorship and obviously failed to destroy Yugoslavian leadership if we judge it by that ahistorical metric, we have the cases of the Iraqi no-fly zone and the Libyan no-fly zone. That is basically it as far as major operations that preceded regime change are concerned.
Did Saddam survive the no-fly zone? Of course he did. If it took cruise missiles pounding Iraq and a land invasion, with American armor rolling through Baghdad before Saddam fell, then he survived the no-fly zone. He survived the no-fly zone precisely because it failed to meaningfully influence the military and political capability of Baghdad to maintain power in non-Kurdish Iraq, and even failed to effectively deter him from launching punitive actions in Kurdistan and supporting favored factions in the Kurdish Civil War. Claiming that Saddam didn’t survive his no-fly zone is an act of supreme historical obfuscation.
As for Libya, did Gaddafi survive the no-fly zone? Yes, of course he did. The imposition of the no-fly zone did not topple Gaddafi, air strikes on regime infrastructure and ground forces bought time for Benghazi, allowing arms and training to help the rebels build combat strength against Gaddafi’s relatively dilapidated and small military and associated paramilitaries. That civil war then reached a prolonged stalemate until more air strikes and decisive ground operations ended it. Had NATO simply conducted a Deny Flight-style operation in Libya, we would have gotten something what Deny Flight really did give us, a strategically ineffective use of air power that failed to temper the much more horrific on-the-ground violence of the civil war it operated over.
In neither case did a no-fly zone break the will of the targeted regime to resist. Strikes unrelated to denying the use of airspace had to begin, and fighting continued until ground troops with supporting air-strikes and foreign backing, directly or indirectly, entered the capital.
The more important lesson for advocates such as Moran is that a no-fly zone sets the stage for more aggressive and effectual foreign involvement, and helps create sunk costs mindsets under which the failure of an inherently limited policy is used to justify more and more forceful intervention by putting national honor and reputation at stake and exhorting that an unsuccessful policy must be doubled down upon. This seems clear when Moran argues for, of course, arming the Syrian rebels, and created a Turkish-led NATO peacekeeping force (!) in Syria.
Moran appears to understand a no-fly zone is insufficient, but then simply constructs straw-man counterarguments that do not attack the many, many flaws that appear with the parts of his policy which would be much more obviously controversial, such as flooding Syria with more weaponry and putting NATO troops on the ground. He acknowledges as much when he notes that while the U.S. and NATO “sat on their hands” after 1993, in Syria, we should do no such thing.
First, though, let us address one of Moran’s rebuttals to a counterargument:
Actually, we’ve got three carrier strike forces in the Persian Gulf for the first time in decades because of the risk of an Israeli-Iranian clash. So they’re in place, and in spite of the conventional wisdom about Syria’s air force, it’s little more formidable that Saddam’s. In effect, a two day problem and (for the real penny pinchers) “monetizing” the current deployment of our naval assets. Meanwhile, Turkey’s interests here align perfectly with our own if ground forces become an issue.
Actually, no we do not. There are two carriers in the 5th Fleet AOR as of September 26, CVN-65 and CVN-69. Also, they are not “in place” for operations in Syria. Carrier groups in the Persian Gulf are roughly 1,000 miles from Syria’s main urban centers, which incidentally also severely pushes the range limits of the U.S.’s latest generation of cruise missiles (Block IV TLAM-E), hundreds of which would be instrumental in any Libya-like campaign to dismantle, at the very least, Syria’s Integrated Air Defense System and C4I. This is all assuming the sovereign country of Iraq allowed the U.S. to overfly its airspace. Not that Iraq could meaningfully contest U.S. airspace, but given Iraq’s substantial role in providing a conduit for Iran into Syria, their opinions and desires ought not be casually wished away.
Of course, any military plan that involved servicing targets and conducting EA-18G sorties from carrier groups in the Gulf is poorly advised. Much more sensible would be deploying carriers to the 6th Fleet AOR in the Mediterranean where they could plausibly support air or ground operations being conducted from Turkey (and presumably Italy).
The fact that we have two carriers in the Gulf to deal with the risks Iran presents to U.S. interests (which are hardly limited simply to the prospect of an Israeli-Iranian conflict, but the frequent Iranian threats against the Strait of Hormuz, the persistent threat the IRGC/QF pose to U.S. bases in the region, assurance of regional allies at threat from Iran and the credibility behind any deterrent threats made against Iran generally) is all the more reason not to devote these assets to a war in Syria. By any military and geographic logic, going to war in Syria devotes limited U.S. interests to a much less substantial strategic concern and meaningfully degrades our ability to conduct operations in the Persian Gulf. Even at the conflict’s conclusion, the alteration in the deployment cycle due for the necessary replenishment of Tomahawk missiles (whose vertical launch systems cannot be replenished underway), the maintenance or replacement of damaged or destroyed aircraft, and the greatly under-appreciated costs of maintenance would prove a hindrance to filling U.S. needs in the 5th Fleet AOR, which could require tapping assets planned to operate in the 7th Fleet AOR at a time when a great power naval dispute is in full swing in the Pacific and may well continue.
As I have written elsewhere, destroying Syrian IADS is not a two-day cakewalk but would require an ongoing effort that would need to ensure not simply initial strikes but a comprehensive SEAD effort, especially if close-air support, broadened strikes against targets unrelated to NFZ imposition, or generalized patrol of safe zones were to occur.
Not only would a Syrian intervention involving naval assets quite obviously disrupt U.S. carrier operations in the Persian Gulf, they would also disrupt the deployment of amphibious units. Even if Moran’s plan involved no conventional ground forces – not Turkey’s, (but it does) not America’s (but it would probably, unless Turkey was willing to bear the blood cost of a land war entirely solo), not anyone’s – the U.S. would likely need to re-task, at the very least, an Amphibious Ready Group in order to support operations. This is hardly an unreasonable assumption considering that the Kearsage Amphibious Ready Group, consisting of the eponymous LHD and the LPD Ponce, carrying the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, were all part of Operation Odyssey Dawn, both in order to conduct search and rescue mission and to provide an immediate response capability if the need to deploy ground troops arose. Syria would be no different.
When the Kearsage Amphibious Ready Group deployed as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn, it ended up disrupting deployment schedules to Afghanistan. In the case of Syria, the use of an Amphibious Ready Group would detract from more important security priorities simply within the Middle East. One, it could detract from the Persian Gulf. The conventional USMC operations, mine-clearing and small-boat missions, and potential SOF missions ships such as the Ponce can support are all part of U.S. contingency plans for dealing with everything from an irregular naval conflict in the Persian Gulf to fending off IRGC attacks on U.S. bases. Two, it could detract from any current or future USMC operations in augmenting the security of U.S. diplomatic and military facilities in North Africa and the Middle East, let alone any future counter-terrorism operations which might emerge. Given that both these cases where American government officials, military personnel, nationals, and allies are all under actual or potential threat, it is not unreasonable to question launching an open-ended intervention in Syria.
Moran then makes a strange argument questioning concerns about second and third order effects:
c) We can’t be sure what will follow a collapse of the Assad regime.
No, but we can be sure what follows his survival. A bolstering of Iran, its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, a message to Iraq’s Shia leaders that the US has lost its resolve, and unwelcomed new fuel for Israeli paranoia. Additionally, if we wait any longer, our desperately desired help will be displaced by the very real money and arms being channeled into the country by Saudi and Gulf sources. Anyone remember how that turned out in Pakistan or Afghanistan?
How on earth can we be “sure” Assad’s survival would “bolster” Iran or Hezbollah? Any Assad victory will come at a cost to Iran in treasure and lives (such as those of the IRGC operatives captured by the FSA not long ago), and it will certainly leave Syria with a state infrastructure far more oriented around maintaining internal control than enabling new adventurism. The survival of the Assad regime would not be a “win” for Hezbollah, but simply a “non-loss” that would be unlikely to improve their position vis-a-vis Israel and the Syrian civil war, if anything, could disrupt Lebanese politics and force them into more domestic concerns. A win for Assad is more likely to exacerbate these actors’ problems than embolden their aims.
As for Iraq’s Shia politicians, it is unclear what resolve being demonstrated would accomplish, or how letting Assad win would significantly impact their assessment of it. If anything, opposing the interests of the Iraqi government by trying to topple Assad is likely to strain US-Iraqi relations through aiding, indirectly and directly, the interests of Sunni jihadist groups on the Iraqi frontier, which is hardly going to win us any favors with Iraqi Shia. Toppling Assad would also likely make strengthening relations with Iraq more attractive – and necessary – for Tehran.
Starting a war in Syria to assuage Israeli fears about the country is also an ill-advised move. Israel is rightfully skeptical of the unknown outcome of Assad falling. Although there is no love lost between Israeli and Syrian governments at this time, Assad falling opens opportunities for a variety of extremist groups, and more generally, it strengthens the rise of political Islamists, which is not likely to calm Israeli nerves. Not only that, but a Syrian intervention would undermine the ability of the U.S. to conduct military operations against Iran’s nuclear program, which is Israel’s top concern, particularly with regards to U.S. military activity.
The “arm the rebels so the bad Arab governments don’t” argument remains implausible. The U.S. enabled Gulf money and weaponry to flow into Afghanistan by conducting Operation Cyclone, and portraying the empowerment of extremist groups as the result of wanting U.S. help is simply incorrect. It was precisely U.S. help that strengthened the hand of the ISI and fueled their enormous expansion during the 1980s to keep up with the scope of proxy operations in Afghanistan. While Turkey would play some role in provisioning the FSA inside Syria, Turkey’s intelligence service is not very large, while Gulf Arab state intelligence services and special forces are experienced in training and provisioning rebel groups in a conflict zone. They just did it in Libya, after all. Nor is it clear why the U.S. and Turkey backing relatively moderate groups would dissuade Gulf states from trying to create their own proxies, particularly among the extremist groups the U.S. is unlikely to create influence over anyway.
All that aside, Moran’s use of the no-fly zone as gateway drug permits avoiding serious scrutiny of the obvious followup military actions that would be necessary for expediting Assad’s downfall, an objective which he says precludes a limited escalation such as that of Bosnia. We hear about the insertion of Turkish ground troops, with the ludicrous insistence that the U.S. and Turkey have “perfectly aligned” interests. Turkey and the U.S. do not have perfectly aligned interests, as Turkey is probably far more likely to accept a larger U.S. military role than the U.S. is, a larger role for Islamist and possibly even extremist groups than the U.S. is, a suppression of, say, Kurdish minorities than the U.S. is, among myriad other concerns.
Indeed, given that there does not appear to be a broad public appetite for a war in Syria, which inserting ground troops in any strategically-meaningful capacity would entail, it would be against Turkey’s interests not to demand the U.S. and the rest of NATO take some share in the ground combat, or at the very least, some of the post-civil war peacekeeping operations. Things would get particularly dangerous here, as the insertion of ground troops would require persistent close-air support and ISR sorties, among others, and a contingency plan for irregular attacks on Turkish troops. After all, Iran’s IRGC have units which specialized in coordinating proxy attacks against Coalition troops in Iraq, and there are also jihadist groups which, in the bloody aftermath of Assad’s fall, would be tempted to turn their guns on troops that would almost certainly be backing their political rivals for power in Syria (Before any notional NATO peacekeeping commitment in Syria, the French and the Turks would do well to sort out their respective men in Syria, Manaf Tlass and Farouq al-Shara, do not step on each other’s toes either).
No-fly zones, then, offer a simple-to-advocate, easy-to-obfuscate, and emotionally and symbolically appealing policy prescription that help make the later medicine, like months of close air support and bombing, a prolonged occupation by peacekeeping forces, arming sundry groups of questionable allegiance, and whatever operations become necessary to protect Western interests in a security environment shaped in the shadow of the Benghazi Consulate attacks, just a bit more palatable. Such appeals, though, rely on consistently overlooking the limitations of no-fly zones and giving short shrift to the inevitable concurrent or subsequent policy measures designed to do the bulk of the work in overthrowing the Syrian government and policing its aftermath.
Moran says he hopes the template is not Bosnia. I agree, but for different reasons. What we tried in Bosnia would likely go over poorly in Syria. What’s advocated instead, though, would come in a manner less affordable than war in Bosnia was, and at a time where U.S. interests are under greater stress and its ability to finance them even more so. There is no bargain bin case for intervening in Syria that lets the U.S. advance a policy of intervention there without a cost to more pressing concerns. Not with a no-fly zone, not with arming the rebels, and certainly not with signing onto a NATO peacekeeping force, Turkish-led or no.