A no-fly zone over Syria? Harder to do than in Libya, warns top US general

Some US lawmakers want the US to establish a no-fly zone over Syria. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, questioned Tuesday whether that would do much to reduce Syrian attacks on civilians, never mind that it won't be easy.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks with reporters at a luncheon hosted by The Christian Science Monitor at the St. Regis Hotel on April 30, 2013 in Washington, DC.

How tricky would it be for the US military to establish a no-fly zone over Syria – and do Pentagon officials think it’s a good idea?

Sen. John McCain ( R) of Arizona and other US lawmakers, arguing that imposing a no-fly zone would deal a blow to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, are demanding that the White House do just that.

But the nation’s top military officer warns that establishing a no-fly zone in Syria would be much more difficult than it was to create one over, say, Libya.

What’s more, senior US military officials say they are not convinced that knocking out Syrian air power would make much difference in alleviating most of the violence that civilians there are enduring at the hands of the regime.

“About 10 percent of the casualties that are being imposed on the Syrian opposition are occurring through the use of air power,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Monitor-hosted luncheon with reporters on Tuesday. “The other 90 percent are by direct fire or by artillery,” he added, noting that those figures could vary by two to three percentage points in either direction.

“So, the question then becomes, if you eliminate one capability of a potential adversary, will you be inclined to find yourself in a position to be asked to do more against the rest?" he asked. In other words, establishing a no-fly zone probably would not do much to decrease civilian casualties, and might draw the US military more deeply into a conflict without clear military objectives.

There’s also a strong likelihood that the Assad regime or the Syria-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah would retaliate against US interests, and those of American allies, outside the Syrian border.

“I have to assume,” Dempsey said, “that the potential adversary isn’t just going to sit back and allow us to impose our will on them – that they could, in fact, take exception to the fact that we are employing a no-fly zone and then act outside of their borders.”

This action, he said, could include “long-range rockets, missiles, artillery, or even asymmetric threats” – Pentagon parlance for actions that range from roadside bombs to cyberattacks.

In short, the Pentagon could create a no-fly zone, Dempsey said. But “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 military instrument of power: because it’s not clear to me that it would produce that outcome.”

Dempsey added, however, that if he is ordered to do so, the military will act.

In that case, to be effective, a no-fly zone must have “several elements.”

First the military would have to knock out Syrian air defenses. It would also need a search-and-rescue plan for downed US fighter pilots.

Finally, the Pentagon would have to brace for retaliatory attacks from Syria, both within its borders and beyond.

“Now, none of these reasons are reasons not to take action,” Dempsey said. “But they all should be considered before we take that first step.”

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