Why Pentagon has doubts about no-fly zone over Syria

Reports suggest the Pentagon is preparing no-fly zone plans for Syria, but experts and Pentagon officials say such a strategy might not accomplish much.

Ugarit News via AP video/File
This image taken from video obtained from Ugarit News shows a Syrian fighter jet in a hangar after rebels captured Jarrah airfield in Aleppo province in February. The Syrian Air Force is responsible for only a small fraction of the attacks against rebel forces, Pentagon officials say.

Reports this week that the Pentagon is putting together plans for a no-fly zone over Syria came as little surprise to most defense analysts – after all, senior US military officials are constantly planning for war possibilities.

What is surprising, however, are concerns both within the halls of the Pentagon and among analysts as to whether a no-fly zone would actually be very helpful in protecting civilians and antigovernment fighters on the ground.

What’s more, a US military operation to create a no-fly zone could easily go awry, they add. 

Pentagon spokesman George Little dismissed the notion of any new strategizing on the Syrian front. “There is no new military planning effort underway with regard to Syria,” he said in a statement, adding that the Joint Staff is forging ahead with “prudent planning for a range of possible military options.”

But just how prudent would a no-fly zone be? “For all the talk of no-fly zones, Syrian aircraft are not that relevant,” says a senior US military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has noted that only 10 percent of casualties sustained by Syrian opposition forces are being imposed by air power. The other 90 percent come from direct fire or artillery. 

What’s more, he added in remarks at a Monitor breakfast last month, “whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire – which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties, and a stable Syria – that’s the reason I’ve been cautious, is the right word, about the application of the instrument of power, because it’s not clear to me that it would produce that outcome.” 

The outcome of such an operation has the potential to ignite a larger regional war, says Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“The risk is that things are bad enough regionally that if you have a US pilot who ends up killed or captured by [Syrian President Bashir] Assad’s forces, it offers, at best, a diplomatic opportunity for communication, but at worst, the sort of incident that leads to a larger war,” Mr. Nerguizian says.

The shoot-down of a US fighter jet is far from a remote possibility. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, on the heels of his highly-publicized visit with Syrian rebel forces this week, acknowledged that US fighter jet pilots would have to “fly into the teeth of Syria’s air defenses” in the event of a no-fly zone.

What’s more, though a no-fly zone may seem like a highly compartmentalized military operation, its impacts could ripple in a region where a number of world powers have a stake.

“A no-fly zone cannot be disconnected from the fact that this war for Syria is a regional war,” Nerguizian says, citing Sunni-Shia fault lines within Syria, as well as US-Iranian competition.

There is, too, a “third layer that many allies thought was nonexistent for years: a US-Russia dynamic. All of these things are overlapping in a way that makes this a powder keg,” he adds. “We don’t have visibility on how Hezbollah could retaliate, how Iran would respond, and how the Russians would handle it.” 

That doesn’t mean that a no-fly zone “is a nonoption, but it does mean that the costs are, frankly, very difficult to predict.”

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