Last week it was revealed that the Obama administration has decided to provide lethal military aid to Syrian rebels battling the Bashar Al-Assad government in Damascus. Whether or not this aid will include direct military intervention in the form of an enforced no-fly zone remains to be seen. That said there is evidence that such an intervention may already be in the works. Whether or not this particular intervention takes place a serious question needs to be answered: Would the Assad government actually survive the implementation of a no-fly zone? While there is no easy answer to this question, I believe the chances for survival are better than they might otherwise appear.
Granted some might see this question as needlessly hypothetical. If one takes the word of senior White House officials seriously, the administration is extremely reluctant to undertake the direct military action that a no-fly zone would inevitably require. Yet, this same official did not rule out the possibility either. Suppose the administration were to undertake such an operation. It is widely believed within the administration that such an undertaking would be confined to maintaining the military balance between the government and the rebels and that such a balance would lead to a situation where a negotiated settlement between the two sides would be possible. A no-fly zone then would serve merely as a diplomatic tool, albeit a blunt one, for prodding the Assad government to the negotiating table.
However there are two basic problems with this diplomatic approach. The first is the assumption that a no-fly zone is merely a tool for getting the Assad government to negotiate with the rebels. This assumption fails to take into account the very public stands made by both the president and the former secretary of state regarding the American policy objective towards Syria: the removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power. One can be sure that Syria has not forgotten such pronouncements and will view any direct American military intervention through the lens of these past pronouncements. Rather than a diplomatic tool of prodding, Syria will see such an action for what it truly is: a noose.
The second basic problem with this approach is that it fails to take into account that Syria is not alone in this fight. While an array of nations including Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are deeply vested in a regime change in Damascus, other nations such as Iran and Russia are equally, if not more so, vested in the preservation of the Assad regime. Historically, states that have been subject to a no-fly zone have either had no regional ally to speak of (Iraq and Libya) or could not elicit the support of its allies (feeble Russian opposition to the no-fly zone over Kosovo in the 1990s went unheeded by NATO). With the exception of Iraq in the 1990s, which experienced regime change at the hands of an American-led land invasion in 2003, each state that suffered the imposition of no-fly zone eventually underwent a political transition (i.e. regime change). This historical pattern, coupled with the Obama administration’s stated aims of overthrowing the present Syrian regime, has not gone unnoticed by Syria’s allies. Assad’s Syria today differs from these historical examples largely because it has allies that are both vested in its survival and willing to act materially on its behalf. An American-enforced no-fly zone would not alter but strengthen this dynamic still further.
Contrast this unity of purpose on the part of Syria’s allies with the allies of the U.S. Neither the UN Security Council nor NATO will likely endorse a no-fly zone over Syria in the foreseeable future. Were one to be undertaken, it would be the sole prerogative of the U.S. with possible assistance coming from the United Kingdom and France.
Given all this, could a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone force Bashar Al-Assad’s regime from power? Theoretically it most certainly could. However, the costs of such an intervention would be much higher than is commonly discussed by either the administration or the media. A U.S.-enforced no-fly zone means that the U.S. must ultimately engage in a shooting war; first with Syria but soon after with Iran.