The chaotic two-year conflict in Syria is once again escalating. International reports have surfaced claiming that sarin gas has been deployed in Aleppo, causing significant casualties. Though the perpetrator has yet to be confirmed, renewed calls for intervention by other countries have rapidly surfaced. The least involved of these scenarios would involve a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over the country, denying Bashar al-Assad the use of one of his most decisive capabilities - air power. In the wake of President Obama's declaration in March that the use of chemical weapons would cross a line that would prompt U.S. responses, this option seems even more likely.
There are many arguments in favor of the establishment of a no-fly zone, the most notable of which is that it would aid the resolution of a conflict that has persisted more than two years, claimed over 70 000 lives, and displaced almost 5.5 million people, further destabilizing the entire region. Further, this resolution could be accomplished through the deployment of air power and a few fixed anti-air batteries, foregoing the need for placing boots on the ground.
At first glance, the Syrian anti-air defense system is daunting: 40 000 active members, fielding anywhere from 130-150 missile sites and thousands of anti-air guns and man-portable air defence systems. However, the majority of these systems are dated Soviet designs, dating as far back as the 1950s and 60s. The United States is already familiar and well-equipped to counter, either through the use of electronic countermeasures, standoff missiles, or target saturation (the missile sites/radar arrays are limited to one target at a time). The limited capability of the air defense systems was demonstrated this past week, following Israeli air strikes on targets in Syria.
The more important debate is centered on the aftermath of the establishment of the no-fly zone. It is unlikely Assad would accept the loss of his airspace, raising the possibility of reprisal attacks. Meanwhile, a no-fly zone ignores the root of the problem: 90% of the casualties in Syria are caused by direct fire or artillery, raising doubts as to the "decisive"nature of Syria's air capabilities. To have a significant effect on the Assad war machine, it would be necessary to target its ground forces, requiring escalation significantly beyond that of a no-fly zone.
Such an escalation would cease to be a no-fly zone and would be more akin to the air-support operations in Kosovo, and more recently Libya. Of these, Libya stands as a strong counter-argument to involving solely air assets. A ground force would be absolutely required to ensure stability and prevent the spread of militants, as it was in Libya. This deployment would be long-lasting and exactly the sort of engagement the U.S. is most loath to undertake, following its experience of the previous 13 years.
If the United States possessed the necessary will, it could easily establish a no-fly zone over Syria. However, this approach would be akin to a band-aid on a broken leg, as it ignores the causes of the condition and would barely treat the symptoms. However, it would accomplish the political goal of appearing to respond to the situation while minimizing the risks to American military personnel and preventing a costly and time-consuming military deployment.
Such a deployment, however, will soon be necessary. If the regime has deployed chemical weapons, it has crossed a boundary, requiring a response on ethical grounds. On the other hand, if the rebels are responsible for the attack, then Syria's stockpiles are no longer secure and a response is necessary to prevent the spread of chemical or biological agents.