No No-Fly Zone over Syria

Last week’s meeting between General Dempsey and King Abdullah II of Jordan was noteworthy in that the subject of military intervention in Syria was not discussed.  After two years of endless strategic and political debate it seems that recent events have put an end to the suggestion that the United States should intervene in Syria.  These events include the Egyptian coup, the cancelled US-Russian summit, and sequestration.

Coup derails Egyptian support

Before the July 3 overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, most intervention scenarios in Syria came with the support of this long-time Arab partner.  Indeed, since Hosni Mubarak’s February 2011 ouster and the subsequent “welcoming of democratic transition” by the Obama administration, Egypt has been a somewhat reliable diplomatic partner in the region.  Last June, for example, Morsi formally cut ties with the Assad regime, called for a no-fly zone, and declared, “There is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria.” Additionally, last November, Morsi and Egypt were instrumental in soothing a crisis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 

Egyptian support to the United States seems no longer in place.  In a recent interview to the Washington Post  Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stated, “You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that.”  Furthermore, with congressional debate over additional curtailing of Egyptian military assistance—almost certainly exacerbated by the ongoing violent crackdowns against Morsi loyalists—one has to wonder how much support can be expected in Secretary Kerry’s current peace process endeavor.  The net result is that any intervention in Syria has lost the robust backing from the Arab world’s most populous nation.

At the same time, recent increased tensions between the United States and Russia will further block essential Security Council actions. US-Russian relations are at a post-Cold War low with the cancelling of the September summit.  This comes on the heels of several other high profile diplomatic slights from both sides that includes the veto by Russia of several UN Security Council attempts to curtail the violence in Syria. This leaves an international “coalition of the willing,” marginally supporting the Syrian rebels.  In the backdrop of Iraq, a non-sanctioned no-fly zone would further erode the legitimacy of the UN while simultaneously alienating Russia. 

Of note, there still remain some, including new US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who continues to advocate for intervention under the guidance of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. Others like Anne-Marie Slaughter claim that Security Council approval is not needed asserting Article 52 of the UN Charter justifies intervention.  These are potent arguments from powerful voices.  Nevertheless, lack of Egyptian and Russian support will further exacerbate the current inability to plausibly describe a post-Assad Syria.  Ultimately, however, it will be sequestration that will drive policy. 

Stop the no-fly zone talk

With seemingly bipartisan support of defense reductions, Afghan redeployment should not give way to Syrian intervention. Broadly, taking into account the current economic and political landscape, combined with the rebalance to Asia, a no-fly zone is not strategically viable. A no-fly zone would likely remove Assad’s air power advantage over the rebels, but it is uncertain the rebels could shift the balance of power or stop the Syrian civil war. Furthermore, Dempsey recently testified to congress that a no-fly zone would initially cost $500mn, and then $1bn a month over the course of a year.  Intervention in Syria as such would lead the defense budget analysts to revolt as they attempt to pay for a long-term stability operation while resetting the force.  Combining this with lack of critical support from Egypt and Russia, a no-fly zone is no longer an option.

Paul Rasmussen is a former Navy fighter pilot and current military professor teaching security strategies at the Naval War College. The views in this article are his own and by no means represent the views of the War College or the Department of Defense.

Image: Photo: Department of Defense / Daniel Hinton