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Opinion

Threat of chemical warfare in Syria means it's time for US, NATO no-fly zone

The threat that Bashar al-Assad may use chemical weapons against opposition forces in Syria means it is time for President Obama and America's NATO allies to intervene and establish a no-fly zone. That's a far better option than directly arming the divided rebel forces.

By Daniel Seckman / December 4, 2012

A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon during clashes with Bashar al-Assad's forces in Aleppo, Syria, Dec. 2. President Obama has warned the Assad regime against chemical warfare in the conflict. Op-ed contributor Daniel Seckman says it is 'unlikely that Iran will attempt to militarily oppose a no-fly zone by the US or NATO' but that the 'US and NATO allies will be drawn into a further conflict there, now or in the future, should they supply arms to groups that are only fractionally aligned.'

Narciso Contreras/AP

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Kabul, Afghanistan

President Obama’s warning to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad not to use chemical weapons in the country’s ongoing civil war is just one more signal that in this ever-escalating crisis, it's time for the international community to intervene.

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Whatever course of action may be next for the US and NATO, arming divided rebel groups should not be considered. While the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian National Council (SNC) work out their internal politics, the US and NATO should create and enforce a no-fly zone aimed to provide support to civilians on the ground.

The threat of chemical weapons worsens the situation and strengthens the case for a no-fly zone. Mr. Assad’s regime has demonstrated its willingness to engage civilians on a routine basis; therefore, it is paramount that Western powers adopt an appropriate humanitarian response. A no-fly zone will provide protection to Syrian civilians from the regime’s warplanes and artillery barrage and help remove the threat of chemical weapons being used against the Syrian populace in an aerial attack.

Providing weapons to a disorganized FSA and marginalized SNC would be disastrous. Although weapon caches may be scarce, which has led many FSA units to manufacture homespun grenades and rockets, divisions among rebel fighters are simply too great to arm them. History shows that doing so could prove catastrophic in a post-Assad Syria.

Supporters of the FSA and SNC are asking the United States and NATO allies to provide weapons to topple the Assad regime. They state that surface-to-air missiles are needed to shoot down MiG and L-39 warplanes and artillery is needed to push back advancing troop and tank columns.

What isn’t mentioned is the broad gaps in communication between the FSA on the ground and the SNC who have spent years in exile, and who, only a month ago, were deemed a failure by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. There are additional divisions within the various rebel groups. As my recent trip to Northern Syria and the city of Aleppo highlighted, the current conflict between the FSA and Syrian Kurds, supported by Kurdish separatists in Iraq (the PKK), is escalating. Manned and heavily armed check points have been established dividing FSA and Kurdish controlled neighborhoods inside Aleppo.

Additional divisions exist within the rebels. Islamic fundamentalists have taken to the fight, most notably Jabhat al-Nusra, whose use of suicide tactics and links to Al Qaeda in Iraq have been documented by US intelligence officials. Even within the FSA, divisions have arisen. A recent conflict broke out between two FSA groups responsible for controlling the Azaz border crossing with Turkey in Northern Syria. Each group was interested in maintaining a stake in the royalties received from controlling the border; a severe conflict was only narrowly avoided but required FSA units stationed at the front line to travel to the border.

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