Under my Umbrella: The No-Fly Zone Fallacy


Be wary when the military says no to a policy, but candidates for president say yes. It invariably means the policy was either half-baked, politically expedient, or hatched by some millennial-age advisor who thinks Clausewitz is a brand of German beer.

The latest in a batch of a bad ideas, which makes a cameo in nearly all the presidential contenders’ foreign policy platforms, is the idea of installing a no-fly zone over Syria.

What’s there not to like? After all, a no-fly zone should appeal to a vast constituency of voters who seek a more aggressive and robust, yet humane and sensible, solution to the civil war in Syria — one that sends a signal of strength to Assad yet also simultaneously addresses the worsening refugee crisis. The concept refers vaguely to an area where enemy aircraft are not permitted to fly. Imposed over Bosnia, Iraq, and, most recently, in Libya; these zones are often invoked interchangeably with other phrases, such as “buffer zones,” “cordon sanitaires,” or “humanitarian corridors.” Donald Trump has promised a “beautiful safe zone” in Syria.

A no-fly zone is maybe the most under-theorized concept in international politics — we only have a sample of four or so for scholars to ponder over — and yet our candidates lining up to be the next commander in chief are mostly united behind such a policy (barring Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont) as a way of, as Gustav Meibauer of the London School of Economics puts it, “doing something.” It is the gift that keeps on giving for politicians whose idea of war is informed not by any assessment of ways, ends, risks, and means, but by scoring votes in battleground states. If a no-fly zone polled unpopular in Miami-Dade County, it’d be jettisoned from candidates’ talking points tomorrow.

Instead, we’re stuck with this hyphenated phrase being held up by candidates as a silver bullet, with nary a second of consideration for its strategic or humanitarian implications.

Meanwhile, most of the military leadership is against such a zone. The Army general tapped last month to take command of U.S. Central Command does not favor installing one in Syria. Under intense questioning from a Senate Armed Services Committee and its chairman, Senator John McCain, who is vehemently pro no-fly zone, Army General Joseph Votel did not back down.

The general is correct.

According to advocates, installing a zone will alleviate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Syrians caught in the crossfire between Assad’s regime forces, ISIL, and, until recently, Russian airstrikes. The “beauty” of such zones, the thinking goes, is that they require little commitment, risk, or use of ground forces. Quagmires and no-fly zones are rarely uttered in the same breath.

No-fly zones, it should be noted, serve dual roles: They are meant to provide safe-havens for the victims of conflict to flee to. Yet, by definition they involve a use of force and legally are an act of war, and thus pose the potential for conflict escalation. That, by itself, is no reason to shelf the idea. After all, if done right they have the potential for changing the balance of power on the ground, at least in the regions where they are installed. They also can be used as a signal to deter other third-party interveners from either becoming further involved or from escalating. As former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson put it recently, a no-fly zone “would really test Russia.” Hillary Clinton, in a debate last fall, also advocated the zone as a way to give us “leverage in our conversations with Russia.”

A no-fly zone should satisfy some greater need than sending what game theorists call a costly signal to our adversaries. After all, regardless of what you call it, enforcing such a zone is costly (in terms of money required to maintain them), complicated (lots of supply chain logistics, potential for shirking among coalition partners, etc.), and hardly risk-free. Presumably such a zone requires that Russia’s S-400 system, as well as Syrian air-defenses, be taken out using military force. (In Libya, of course, a no-fly zone was installed in the face of a pending massacre in Benghazi. In Syria, a no-fly zone has been called for after a series of pitched urban battles involving barrel bombs, chemical attacks, and Russian-backed airstrikes).

Proponents of a zone generally fall into two camps: those exasperated by our thumb-twiddling over five years who see a humanitarian catastrophe and refugee crisis getting worse, and those who favor such a zone as a way of expediting regime change in Damascus and signaling greater strength to the Russians and Iranians, who have backed Assad and done little to counter ISIL.

Let’s face it: It is hard to be against a no-fly zone in principle — who would not want to provide a shelter or safe zone for refugees fleeing violence? — But there are some like me who question our ability to execute it militarily. I point to two concerns:

First, to carry out a no-fly zone would require close cooperation with Turkey, and right now, U.S.-Turkish relations are suffering due to the leadership in Ankara’s tilt toward authoritarianism (A recent scuffle among protesters and security, outside a Washington DC think-tank where the prime minister was speaking, points to how badly relations have soured). Turkey has long advocated for a no-fly zone but Washington has refused its request — mostly because of our own reliance on Kurdish proxies to fight ISIL along the Syrian-Turkish border, but presumably also because of our unwillingness to invite greater Turkish military involvement in Syria. Despite Turkey being a NATO member and a host to a strategically located airbase, it’s unclear Turkey would be a reliable ally and not violate such a no-fly zone (even if notionally the no-fly zone would be mostly targeted at Russian and Syrian forces) to carry out its own military objectives, which have less to do with saving the lives of civilians, and more to do with preventing greater Kurdish autonomy. The single most effective group that is countering ISIL is a Kurdish militia called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Ankara’s sworn enemy. This point is not lost on the Obama administration, as it kicks the no-fly zone can to its successor. A no-fly zone would also presumably require the nominal buy-in of Russia, and that appears unlikely so long as the zone is presumed to be militarily helpful for the Syrian opposition fighting Assad.

Second, a no-fly zone is unlikely to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Syrians and may potentially be harmful. The plan, at least as outlined by Turkish officials, would include a belt of land around Azaz and Jarablus in the north. A potential worst-case scenario would be the establishment of such a “humanitarian corridor” or “safe zone” and then a failure to enforce it. To enforce a no-fly zone could require “as many as 70,000 American servicemen to dismantle Syria’s sophisticated anti-aircraft system, and then impose a 24-hour watch over the country,” General Martin Dempsey noted back in 2013 – and this was before the S-400 was deployed. Even still, all military interventions require a cost-benefit analysis, and if a zone were presumed to work, then it should not be ruled out. But given the shakiness of our allies (Turkey), the tenuously working “cessation of hostilities” on the ground, and the unpredictability of our own proxy forces on the ground; this does not bode well that a “safe zone” would not be violated in the middle of a war zone — it’s too tempting a cookie jar.

So, then what are some alternative policies to a no-fly zone? First, a form of blockade to prevent the rearmament of Assad’s forces, while complicated from a logistics standpoint, has never been seriously debated. Second, the threat of using airstrikes against Assad’s forces was taken off the table in the fall of 2013, as ISIL provided for a richer target, and U.S. calls for “Assad must go” softened to a barely audible whisper. With Russian airplanes no longer bombing the north, U.S. forces could presumably cajole Assad back to the bargaining table (this time with the Syrian opposition at the table) with the threat of future military costs as a powerful stick. Finally, some kind of resolution to the conflict in Yemen, however unlikely in the near-term, would free up our Gulf partners to commit greater resources — specifically commando forces — to Syria to assist our military efforts there.

Let’s face facts: The Syrian civil war is not going to burn itself out, barring some kind of greater military intervention or outright victory by Assad’s forces. Don’t listen to armchair analysts predicting a radical redrawing of borders, or the deep-sixing of Sykes-Picot. Borders, especially the haphazardly drawn ones in the Middle East, are stickier than we tend to presume.

Yet, no-fly zones are not the antidote, whether to the security or the humanitarian problem we face in Syria. They neither resolve the conflict nor alleviate the suffering of civilians. Instead, they emerge as a type of “satisficing” that policymakers like less to change the balance of power on the ground, and more to score domestic political points. They neither signal strength to our adversaries nor sympathy for the victims they purportedly are meant to protect. Instead, they put interveners in an indefinite holding pattern, one followed by either retreat, or mission creep (or worse, a drip-drip-drip of military and financial resources).

Calling for a no-fly zone in Syria is a not a courageous demonstration of resolve for presidential candidates, nor is it evidence of a humanitarian strategy. It is evidence of parroting the Washington “playbook” handed them by advisors who prefer to punt on Syria and refuse to put forth creative solutions.

In the upcoming general election, let’s be sure to challenge presidential candidates calling for such a zone in Syria to force them to discuss in detail a) how operationally it will resolve the civil war and provide victims relief, b) how as commander in chief they will enforce the zone and what role our shaky allies will play, and c) what they are willing to do when (not if) the zone is violated.

Otherwise, to paraphrase the retired Air Force General David Deptula, a no-fly zone is a tactic in search of a strategy.


Lionel Beehner is an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Modern War Institute and former senior staff writer and term member at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Eric Harris, U.S. Air Force