A no-fly zone for Aleppo risks a war that could engulf us all

This humanitarian tactic had worked in Iraq in 1991, but given the complexity of the Syrian conflict today, attempts to police its airspace can have disastrous consequences

By Jonathan Steele
16:50 October 13, 2016

Much was made in this week’s House of Commons debate in Britain on Syria of the need for a no-fly zone over Aleppo . Given that the Syrian government and the Russians have a monopoly of air power over the city, the idea of denting or deterring it might seem attractive. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate in the United States, also advocated such a zone in last Sunday’s presidential TV debate.

In 1991, the US and Britain imposed a successful no-fly zone over northern Iraq to protect the Kurds, but they were already at war with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain, having just defeated him in Kuwait. Saddam was on his own internationally, despised and isolated. He had no support from Russia or any Arab ally. The last thing he wanted was to confront the US any further. Enforcing a no-fly zone (even though it had no clear United Nations Security Council authorisation) involved no risk to the US or UK. Saddam made little effort to resist and not one of their manned aircraft was shot down.

Today’s situation in Syria is different. The Syrian air force is fully engaged and will not back down in its campaign to defeat its enemies in Aleppo. After three years of military stalemate, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad feels he has regained the upper hand and is determined to retake his country’s largest city. More importantly, the Russians are also active in the air. Imposing a no-fly zone unilaterally (it would never gain a Security Council mandate) would be a declaration of war on Russia as well as on Al Assad. The dangers are obvious. It is not just a question of a clash between western and Russian planes by accident. That may be the only risk if it was assumed that the Russians would meekly leave the skies free.

Why would they? They are not going to be deterred from a bombing campaign that appears to be helping Al Assad’s ground forces advance. For the West to confront them risks an incalculably serious war. Many on the extremist side would like nothing more than to see the West and Russia destroying each other in a hot war. But for Britain and the US, it is madness. Clinton seemed to recognise that in a speech to corporate donors, according to the latest Wikileaks release. “All of a sudden, this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and Nato involvement where you take [out] a lot of civilians”, she said.

There are only three sensible ways to save Aleppo’s people. One is the voluntary departure of the extremists who, in the words of UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, are holding civilians hostage. One could go further and say they are keeping eastern Aleppo’s civilians as human shields. Why, for example, have most people not left already, given the intensity of Russian bombing: Is it that the extremists are blocking people’s escape? Syria is also mired in a propaganda war, and in the heart-rending images that the rebels put out on social media about life and death in Aleppo, the seamier side of the armed groups’ control is suppressed. Hundreds of civilians recently left the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya after the rebels gave in, with no reprisals from Al Assad’s forces. Gunmen were even allowed to keep their weapons and were taken by buses to rebel-held areas in the north.

The second option is for Syrian government forces to retake the whole city, just as Iraqi forces retook extremist-held Ramadi and Fallujah in recent months. Iraqi barrel bombs and US air strikes had left three-quarters of those cities in ruins, but civilians got the chance to rebuild their lives. The concept of an Al Assad victory will stick in the throats of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have lost so much in the fight against him. But if the secular multicultural tolerance of pre-war Syria is to be restored, it is better to deny victory to the extremists who pose as the main opposition to Al Assad, whether it is Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Jabhat Al Nusra or similar groups.

The third option is a ceasefire. Last month’s Russian-American agreement provided for the superpowers to separate the Jabhat Al Nusra fighters from those Syrian Islamists prepared to negotiate with Al Assad’s representatives in Geneva for a coalition government.

The ceasefire never took hold because the Islamists refused to split. Jabhat Al Nusra understandably did not want to be isolated and left vulnerable to a joint US-Russia air campaign. So they used their dominance among the Aleppo fighters to press the other groups to stick with them. For their part, the non-Jabhat Al Nusra fighters feared an alliance between the Americans, the Russians and Al Assad’s army. Having failed once, for the Russians and Americans to broker a new ceasefire is a tall order. The other options are equally difficult. But at least they tend towards de-escalation. Proposing a no-fly zone not only risks greater catastrophe for the people of Aleppo. It threatens to engulf us all.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Jonathan Steele is a Guardian columnist, roving foreign correspondent and author. Since 9/11, he has reported from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His new book is Ghosts of Afghanistan.

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