How can a no-fly zone work?
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A YouGov poll finds that 64% of people in the UK support a No-Fly Zone to protect Aleppo’s civilians. What does that mean in practice?
For years, there have been many conflicting messages on the practicality of a no-fly zone in Syria. This briefing will aim to explain the differences between safe areas, no-fly zones, and no-bombing zones, and the practicality and effectiveness of each.
Variations on a no-fly zone
Patrolled no-fly zones are expensive to run, and bring an element of risk to aircrews. In the case of the northern and southern Iraq no-fly zones, air patrols had to be maintained for over a decade at great cost. Reducing risk to aircrews by preemptively attacking air defences risks unintended casualties, and where some air defences are Russian, as in Syria, attacking them is clearly undesirable. Therefore a number of alternatives have been proposed.
Alternatives include a no-bombing zone, a helicopter no-fly zone, or supplying opposition forces with anti aircraft weapons.
The preferred option: A no-bombing zone
Also called an air exclusion zone, or a ‘deter and retaliate’ no-fly zone. A no-bombing zone requires giving the Assad regime and its allies an ultimatum to stop air attacks against civilians, and then answering any subsequent air attacks with carefully targeted strikes against Assad regime military assets only, such as runways or aircraft on the ground.
A no-bombing zone does not require air patrols over Syrian territory. The UK has the capacity to track aircraft over Syria from beyond Syrian airspace, and to respond to violations with weapons launched from beyond Syrian territory.
A no-bombing zone can be enforced by retaliatory strikes using stand-off weapons launched from beyond Syrian airspace so that UK personnel are not at risk. Both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have the precision stand-off weapons necessary to enforce a no-bombing zone from outside Syrian territory.
Making the no-bombing zone Syria-wide would avoid the risk of a limited zone encouraging population displacement or inviting testing actions by violators along its perimiter.
Including attacks by regime allies in its prohibitions but limiting responses to Assad regime military targets would deter Russian airstrikes on civilians but with no direct military action against Russia.
A no-bombing zone is not a safe area. A no-bombing zone aims only to protect civilians against air attack, and does not require troops on the ground.
A ground enforced no-fly zone
One early proposal for Syria was to use Patriot missiles on the Turkish and Jordanian borders to enforce limited no-fly zones in Syria. This would require careful coordination to avoid hitting Coalition or Russian aircraft and is no longer widely advocated.
Another proposal has been to supply vetted armed opposition forces with anti-aircraft weapons, either MANPADS (Manually Portable Air Defence Systems) or other less mobile anti aircraft weapons.
The most often cited fear in relation to MANPADS is of proliferation, but this could be contained thorough verification of use. Vetted armed opposition forces are already supplied with anti tank weapons and have to verify their use in order to be resupplied.
Another fear is that they might hit Coalition aircraft, but MANPADS with limited range could be used to hit Assad regime helicopters or jets carrying out low ground attacks, but would be unable to hit Coalition aircraft carrying out sophiticated precision strikes from high altitude.
The greatest problem in supplying MANPADS is that this would only provide localised defence against a limited number of aircraft, and so would not provide comprehensive protection for civilians under air attack.
A helicopter no-fly zone
A limited no-fly zone against helicopters could be enforced using long range Royal Navy air defence systems on ships in the Mediterranean. This could give wider cover than supplying limited anti aircraft weapons to armed opposition forces, avoid proliferation risks, avoid risks to UK aircrews, and would not require dealing with Syrian or Russian air defences.
A helicopter no-fly zone wouldn’t give full protection against air attacks but could greatly reduce the number of attacks and increase the cost to the Assad regime and its allies of continuing their attacks on civilians. It could also form part of enforcing a geographically limited safe area.
Safe areas have long been advocated in northern and southern Syria adjacent to the Turkish and Jordanian borders. A safe area requires protection from air attacks and also protection from ground attacks. It therefore requires some form of air defence or no fly zone as well as forces on the ground capable of defending civilians.
The risks include endangering civilians through declaring a safe area without ensuring sufficient protection, as in Srebrenica, or encouraging the enforced displacement of people in other areas into the safe area. The latter is a particular risk in Syria where the Assad regime is pursuing a campaign of enforced displacement against a very large portion of the population. Nonetheless, safe areas could provide a measure of safety for very many people.
The old way: Air patrolled no-fly zones
There are two clear examples of enforced no-fly zones in history: Bosnia and Iraq. These were air patrolled no-fly zones enforced by fighter aircraft making regular patrols of the airspace to deter and intercept violators.
The Libya intervention began with the grounding of regime and opposition aircraft, but most of the campaign was directed against ground threats to civilians, such as artillery, and not at no-fly zone enforcement.
In the case of the northern and southern Iraq no-fly zones, Iraqi air defences weren’t attacked preemptively as a rule but rather attacked whenever they targeted patrolling aircraft. In Libya, air defences were largely disabled at the outset.
The US Air Force is already enforcing an undeclared no-fly zone over Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria.
In August 2016 the Assad regime came into conflict with US-backed Kurdish YPG forces in Hasakah. The US increased air patrols to deter further Assad regime air attacks in the area, and Assad’s military reportedly withdrew its aircraft from Qamishli airport under US supervision.
All military action carries a risk of casualties for civilians, and sometimes for military personnel.
Air patrolled no-fly zones entail a degree of risk for air crews. In enforcing the Bosnia no-fly zone, two NATO aircraft were shot down, but all aircrew survived. In enforcing no-fly zones in Iraq, no manned patrol aircraft were shot down by Iraqi forces over the twelve years of operation.
Striking regime ground targets puts civilians at risk. For Nato’s seven-month Libya intervention (which went beyond a no-fly zone) The New York Times, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty counted between 40 and 115 civilians killed by NATO aircraft. This compares to a higher reported rate of civilian deaths in the current Coalition campaign against ISIS, and a very much higher rate of killing of civilians by Russian and Assad regime bombing in Syria.
Airwars has recorded 3,600 civilian deaths caused by Russian bombing raids since they joined the Syrian conflict just over a year ago, a number Airwars director Chris Woods described as an ‘absolute minimum.’
The US-led Coalition has caused nearly 900 civilian deaths over 26 months according to Airwars. ‘The Russians’ death rate probably outpaces the coalition by a rate of eight to one,’ according to Chris Woods.
The Assad regime is killing civilians at more than twice the rate that Russia is killing. In the first half of 2016, the Syrian Network for Human Rights counted a minimum of 3,417 civilians killed by Assad regime forces, compared to 1,378 civilians killed by Russian forces.
In the same six month period, SNHR counted a minimum of 764 civilians killed by ISIS, 21 civilians killed by Al Nusra, 462 civilians killed by armed opposition groups, 266 killed by unidentified groups, and 127 killed by the US-led Coalition.
Jo Cox on a no-bombing zone
“I believe a no-bombing zone is feasible if it is enforced from maritime assets in the Mediterranean, so as to avoid engaging Syrian air defences. This would save lives, uphold international humanitarian law and breathe life into the political process. A well-designed deterrence operation would impose a cost on the Syrian regime for any indiscriminate bombing of civilians—for example, by targeting the military airbases where barrel bombs are stored and flown from. Any attempt by the regime to escalate would trigger additional punitive strikes, rendering aerial bombardment counterproductive. In those circumstances, it is far more likely that Assad and Russia will be forced to the negotiating table.”
Jo Cox, House of Commons debate on civilians in Syria, 12 October 2015.
The heart of the Syria crisis is the Assad regime’s war against the civilian population, and it is this which most urgently must be brought to an end. The bombing of civilians drives refugees to flee and fuels extremism.
Ending the bombing of civilians would help create conditions to negotiate a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
A carefully planned ‘deter and retaliate’ model no-bombing zone would provide greatest benefit at lowest cost and lowest risk to UK personnel and to civilians on the ground. It would allow the opportunity for a degree of humanitarian relief, and allow a breathing space for peace.
UK leaders should now publicly advocate to allies that they join in enforcing a no-bombing zone covering all of Syria.
Syria regime empties Qamishli Airport from warplanes following American threats
By Okab Malek, Zaman Al Wasl, 11 September 2016.
Denying Flight: Strategic Options for Employing No-Fly Zones
By Karl P. Mueller, RAND Corporation, 2013.
Stop the barrel bombs: A moral and legal responsibility to use force
Syria Needs a No-Fly Zone, 28 April 2014.
Reality check: are US-led airstrikes on Syrians as bad as Russia’s?
By Emma Graham-Harrison, The Guardian, 12 October 2016.
The killing of 6567 civilians in the first half of 2016
Syrian Network for Human Rights, 1 July 2016.