Why Angela Merkel wants a no-fly zone in Syria

The creation of a no-fly zone in Syria to protect its civilians amid the ongoing civil war there was suggested by German Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday, but peace efforts and the creation of a safe haven could prove difficult in the Syrian conflict.

Bassam Khabieh/Reuters/File
People walk past damaged buildings in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria in early February. Peace talks between opposing forces in the Syrian civil war have not yet been soldified, and many civilians are still living in areas that are not protected from fighting.

A proposal made Wednesday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to establish a no-fly zone in Syria to shelter civilians there was shot down by Russian officials, who said the creation of a protected area would only be enacted with the support of the Syrian government.

Mrs. Merkel’s call to make a haven for Syrian civilians affected by the ongoing civil war was not the first such suggestion; after years of conflict in the Arab nation, a no-fly zone has been considered by countries like Turkey and other groups aligned against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Despite their support, Moscow and US officials in Washington have been resistant to the idea, though for different reasons.

“No decision about any no-fly zones can be made without the agreement of the host country and the relevant decision of the UN Security Council,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said to Reuters.

“It would be helpful if there were an area in Syria that none of the parties to the war bombed,” Merkel had said, according to the Associated Press, adding that the implementation of a safe zone would be “a sign of good will.”

The US, working to facilitate a peace agreement between President Assad’s Russian-backed government forces and the Syrian opposition, has also been against the idea of a civilian safe haven as Washington is wary of the repercussions such an area could have on US operations in the fight against Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his displeasure with the US position on the issue, as one of the hotbeds in the Syrian conflict – the populous city of Aleppo – is in close proximity to Turkey and fighting there is spreading to the border. Turkey is also critical of the US’s use of Kurdish fighters in its operations against IS forces, fearing the group viewed by Ankara as terrorists could bring unrest north of the border.

Mr. Erdoğan said US support of a no-fly zone earlier on could have saved civilian lives and kept Russian air operations from ever expanding in Syria.

“Oh America! You did not say 'yes' to 'no-fly zone.' Now the Russian planes are running wild over there, and thousands and tens of thousands of victims are dying,” Erdoğan said, according to the AP. “Weren't we coalition forces? Weren't we to act together?”

Although the international forces differ on the proposal, potential peace talks in the wider conflict could get underway later this week. After meeting in Germany last week, US and Russian officials announced a planned ceasefire beginning Friday in Syria, although Washington said Moscow needs to “put up or shut up” to implement a potential ceasefire.

“A country has been shattered because Assad was willing to shatter it,” US President Barack Obama said, adding that Russia “has been party to that entire process.”

Despite the administration’s harsh words, a US State Department spokesman suggested that the US may not actually expect an all-out suspension of hostilities, hoping only for “some progress on a cessation of hostilities.”

Russia said peace efforts hinge on US action.

Everything depends on the Americans, on whether they will be ready to cooperate on a military level,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, according to Reuters.

While a truce could be a long way off and an official no-fly zone appears unlikely, some humanitarian efforts have begun in Syria. More than 100 trucks carrying relief items were allowed into seven besieged areas Wednesday amid international calls to end Assad’s use of the "surrender or starve" strategy on hundreds of thousands of his citizens.

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