No Fly Zone in Syria

The Violence of Humanitarian Intervention and the Need for Genuine Solidarity

by Joe Caterine

The White Helmets rescue a boy after a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo, April 2014. (Photo courtesy of The Independent).

An attack in the province of Idlib last month has led to more calls for a No Fly Zone (NFZ) in northern Syria. This agenda is being pushed by humanitarian groups like Avaaz, The Syrian Campaign, and The White Helmets. One such campaign, Planet Syria (run by The Syrian Campaign), claims to be representing non-violent activists on the ground. According to the group’s survey of 277 activists, the main reason given for wanting a NFZ is that it would “protect civilians and reduce the violence.”

John Tye, the Campaign Director for Avaaz, shared this line of reasoning in an email response to criticism of Avaaz’s support for a NFZ. He makes the bold claim that a NFZ will “save tens of thousands of civilians’ lives.”

Avaaz’s coalition cites a 2014 UN Security Council Resolution that specifically outlaws “barrel bombs,” or improvised explosive devices that sometimes contain toxic chemical components. In 2015 alone, there have been 321 documented barrel bomb attacks, 210 of which were dropped in northern Syria.

Growing Support for a NFZ

Since the idea for a NFZ in northern Syria was first proposed by France (Syria’s former colonizer), the United States has hesitated in committing to such an operation. Last month, however, a US envoy announced that the United States was considering a NFZ on the Turkish border, but the specifics have yet to be outlined.

The United States’ unwillingness to impose a NFZ has to do with concerns about directly confronting Assad’s regime and the escalation in violence that would result. The Syrian Government has one of the most sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems in the region and is much more prepared to counter US air power than previous countries subjected to NFZs. As an alternative, the Obama Administration has advocated for local “freeze” ceasefires as a de-escalation strategy. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has led negotiations with Syrian government officials and opposition leaders to agree to these ceasefires, but the truces so far have been ineffective and short-lived.

While the international demand for peaceful negotiations in Syria wavers, the enforcement of a NFZ has gained public support in the past few months. Avaaz’s recent campaign is partly responsible, but so is the growth of ISIS and the wide circulation of its horrific crimes. A poll released last month showed that 52% of US citizens would vote for a presidential candidate who would deploy ground troops to confront ISIS. A NFZ would give the US military the ability to work more closely with opposition forces in Syria and increase its airstrikes against ISIS. Still, the US air campaign that began last September has also killed Syrian civilians. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, US-led airstrikes have killed over 100 non-combatants so far. The US military has admitted that its guidelines to avoid civilian casualties in Syria are “loose.

The 2011 NFZ in Libya

When considering a NFZ in Syria, the most recent analogy would be the NFZ imposed on Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in March 2011. Avaaz also led a campaign to raise support for a NFZ in Libya. Avaaz’s call to action argued “a powerful public demand from all corners of the planet can push all the governments on the Council to take action.” Other humanitarian groups, like the Genocide Intervention Network and the International Crisis Group, also pushed for a “humanitarian intervention.”

The UN-authorized, NATO-led operation ousted Gaddafi, but it did not end hostilities in the region. On the contrary, Libya has descended into further chaos since the NFZ. In January 2014, the country became split between two rival governments, with many militant groups also controlling territory. It is estimated that over 3,000 people have been killed since then, and over a third of the population has fled to Tunisia.

In an interview on Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer asked US General Carter Ham, who orchestrated the NFZ in Libya, about his position on a NFZ in Syria:

BS: General, let me ask you — we keep hearing reports of setting up a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Is that a good idea? And what does that entail?
CH: I worry sometimes that, when people say “impose a no-fly zone,” there is this almost antiseptic view that this is an easily accomplished military task. It’s extraordinarily difficult. Having overseen imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, a force that is vastly inferior in air forces and air defenses to that which exists in Syria, it’s a pretty high-risk operation. We can do it. Certainly, the Air Force, the United States Air Force and the aviation components of the Navy and the Marine Corps, the best in the world, unmatched, and they can do it. But it — it drives the risk up pretty high.
BS: Well, what — what does it entail?
CH: It first entails — we should make no bones about it. It first entails killing a lot of people and destroying the Syrian air defenses and those people who are manning those systems. And then it entails destroying the Syrian air force, preferably on the ground, in the air if necessary. This is a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties and increased risk to our own personnel.

Genuine Solidarity for Syria

In his statement, John Tye of Avaaz argues that a NFZ is the only way to stop the violence in Syria: “Thousands and thousands of people will die, for years to come, if we turn away and wring our hands.”

It does seem like there are no alternatives. Peace plan after peace plan has failed. The local ceasefires, or “freezes,” have made local situations even worse, time and time again.

85 groups, many of them local Syrian non-violent committees, have signed the Planet Syria petition calling for a NFZ. Despite the overwhelming evidence discrediting the humanitarian promises of a NFZ, should the international community put those concerns aside and give these groups the benefit of the doubt?

Genuine solidarity requires real communication, and the Planet Syria campaign has failed to supply the actual detailed opinions of these non-violent Syrian groups. Only a list of their names are provided on the Planet Syria website. Listening to these groups is crucial to resolving the conflict, but The Syria Campaign has failed in creating that dialogue.

International solidarity groups who want to end the violence in Syria must do a far better job of connecting directly with the autonomous non-violent groups on the ground. Relying on big NGOs like Avaaz and The Syria Campaign to act as liaisons inhibits the development of genuine solidarity. It is the responsibility of local groups outside of Syria to reach the non-violent groups inside the country and engage with them about how to expedite peaceful negotiations. By communicating and coordinating in this way, the world can build hope for Syria without resorting to violence.

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Joe Caterine is a member of the Austin-based Syrian People Solidarity Group. This article reflects his views and does not speak for the group as a whole. SPSG will be holding a candlelight vigil for Syria at 8 pm on Tuesday, April 7 in front of the UT Tower. You can follow Joe Caterine on Twitter @JosephCaterine

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