Abu Sisu and Seshat are intelligence analysts currently working in the field of homeland security.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  November 30, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 26, 2016.

Authors and / or Article Point of View:  Abu Sisu has more than 20 years of experience as a military and homeland security intelligence analyst.  Seshat is an intelligence analyst with over six years of experience living in the Middle East and focuses on local solutions to local problems.   

Background:  The complex and protracted nature of the conflict in Syria has continued for almost six years with no side achieving a definitive political or military victory.  While estimates vary, between 250,000 to 500,000 Syrians have died since 2011 and around eleven million were displaced from their homes, with almost five million having fled Syria[1].  The Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) has intentionally targeted civilians since the civil war began.  In September 2015 the Russian military began assisting Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime through airstrikes against rebel held territory which inflicted thousands of civilian casualties.

Significance:  The widespread targeting of civilians violates international law and has fueled the largest refugee and displacement crisis since World War II, further destabilizing the region[2].

Option #1:  A U.S.-led Coalition imposes a no-fly zone in Syria.  A no-fly zone is airspace designated as off limits to flight-related activities[3].  The SyAAF depopulates territory as a way to eliminate support for opposition groups.  A U.S.-led Coalition could restrict SyAAF movement thus protecting critical areas in Syria.  As with earlier no-fly zones in Iraq (Operation Southern Watch/Focus) and Bosnia (Operation Deny Flight), U.S. and Coalition forces would likely be authorized to attack other targets—anti-aircraft assets for example—that threaten the mission.  On October 24th, 2016 Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Deborah Lee James said she was confident that it would be possible to impose a no-fly zone in Syria[4].  Mike Pence, the U.S. Vice President-Elect, announced his support for a no-fly zone during the Vice-Presidential debate on October 4th, 2016[5].

Risk:  Russian government activity supports the Assad regime and a no-fly zone may be interpreted as an attempt to undermine Russian national security goals.  If the U.S. cannot reach an agreement with the Russians on the implementation of a no-fly zone, the U.S. can expect the Russians to respond in one or more of the following ways:

Rejecting cooperation on Middle East issues.  Russian support is important for maintaining the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and for concluding a peace agreement to the Syrian Civil War.  If Russia withdrew or chose to undermine efforts related to the Iran nuclear deal or the Syrian Civil War, it is likely that neither situation would achieve an acceptable resolution.

Escalating pressure on North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Members or U.S. Allies and Partners.  Russia has threatened to cut off natural gas supplies to Europe in the past and made aggressive military moves in the Baltics as a warning to Finland and Sweden to reject NATO membership[6][7].

Direct military confrontation between Russian forces currently supporting the Assad regime and U.S.-led Coalition forces in the region.  With both Russian and U.S.-led Coalition aircraft flying in Syrian airspace, the possibility exists for conflict between the two, either accidentally or when attempting to evade or enforce the no-fly zone.  Additionally, Russian forces deployed anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and, as of October 6th, 2016 declared that any Coalition airstrikes against territory held by the Syrian government would be interpreted as a “clear threat” to Russian forces[8].

Gain:  A no-fly zone could eliminate the threat to civilians from the SyAAF.  Displaced persons would have more options to relocate within Syria rather than making a perilous journey to other countries.  A no-fly zone would reduce the capabilities of the Assad regime which has relied on airpower to counter attacks by opposition forces.  A reduction in Syria’s ability to use airpower may serve as another incentive for the Assad regime to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Option #2:  A pilot program that provides Syrian refugees with the training and skills to rebuild Syria in the aftermath of the conflict—Syrians Rebuilding Syria (SRS).  SRS will solicit the assistance of volunteer engineers and architects—specifically those involved with the post-conflict reconstruction and development in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Lebanon—to train refugees.  The aim is to equip teams of refugees with the appropriate vocational training in architecture, city planning and development, brick laying, constructing roads, installing or repairing electrical grids, operating heavy construction machinery, and implementing sewage and drainage systems among other things.

Risk:  As the intensity of the Syrian Civil War increases the refugee flow the SRS will require increased funding to train them.  The accumulated costs of the SRS program in the short-term are unlikely to yield a tangible return on investment (ROI) and success will be difficult to measure.  Without a way to demonstrate ROI, the U.S. Congress may hesitate to appropriate continued funding for SRS.  Additionally, the success of the program depends on the outcome of the Syrian Civil War.  If Assad is not defeated, graduates of SRS may be viewed as American-trained spies, whose goal is to infiltrate and undermine the regime. Further, without a specific plan as to where the SRS-trained refugees will return to in Syria, or who they will meet once they arrive, the trainees will likely face unpredictable conditions with no guarantee of success.

Gain:  A militarily agnostic option that trains refugees to rebuild Syria could prove to be a strategically effective tool of U.S. soft power.  SRS would not burden the U.S. with nation building, but instead provide Syrians with the necessary tools to rebuild their own country.  These factors would likely assist in countering anti-Americanism, particularly among Syrians, and serve as a model for effective non-military assistance in future conflicts. Additionally, as the conflict is prolonged, graduates of SRS will likely become more attractive refugees to other countries in the region due to their employability.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  CNN, L. S.-S., Jomana Karadsheh and Euan McKirdy. (n.d.). Activists count civilian toll of Russian airstrikes in Syria. Retrieved November 10, 2016, from http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/30/middleeast/un-aleppo-condemnation/index.html

[2]  United Nations. (2016, March 15). Syria conflict at 5 years: The biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time demands a huge surge in solidarity. Retrieved December 02, 2016, from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/press/2016/3/56e6e3249/syria-conflict-5-years-biggest-refugee-displacement-crisis-time-demands.html

[3]  Hinote, C. (2015, May 05). How No-Fly Zones Work. Retrieved November 23, 2016, from http://blogs.cfr.org/davidson/2015/05/05/how-no-fly-zones-work/

[4]  OMelveny, S. (n.d.). SecAF: US Could Create Syria No-Fly Zone While Fighting ISIS [Text]. Retrieved November 10, 2016, from http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/10/24/secaf-us-could-create-syria-no-fly-zone-while-fighting-isis.html

[5]  Syria Draws a Rare Source of Accord in Debate Between Kaine and Pence – The New York Times. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/06/us/syria-vice-presidential-debate.html?_r=1

[6]  Russia Gazprom risks another gas standoff with Ukraine – Business Insider. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2016, from http://www.businessinsider.com/russia-gazprom-risks-another-gas-standoff-with-ukraine-2015-2?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+businessinsider+(Business+Insider)

[7]  Russia Issues Fresh Threats Against Unaligned Nordic States. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2016, from http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/international/2016/05/05/russia-issues-fresh-threats-against-unaligned-nordic-states/83959852/

[8]  Oliphant, R. (2016, October 06). Russia warns it will shoot down alliance jets over Syria if US launches air strikes against Assad. Retrieved December 04, 2016, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/06/russian-air-defence-missiles-would-respond-if-us-launches-air-st/