Syria Options: Safe Zone

Carlo Valle has served in United States Marine Corps and the United States Army.  A graduate of History at Concordia University (Montreal) he is presently pursuing a Masters in Geopolitics and International Relations at the Catholic University of Paris.  He can be found on Twitter @cvalle0625.  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:  December 4, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 2, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is a former enlisted member of the United States military and a constructivist who believes that international relations are influenced by more than just power and anarchy but also by the construction of identity.  The article is written from the point of view of the U.S. towards the Syrian Civil War.

Background:  The Syrian Civil War has moved into its fifth year.  A combination of intertwined and conflicting interests has created a stalemate for all sides thus prolonging human suffering.  Attempting to break the stalemate, Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air forces are bombing civilian targets in rebel-controlled areas, despite claims of targeting only the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusra-held areas.

Significance:  The conflict has sparked a mass exodus of refugees fleeing the fighting.  This mass exodus has overwhelmed neighboring countries and Europe.  To ease this refugee burden and human suffering, some have proposed establishing safe zones.

Option #1:  Establish a safe zone.  A safe zone is a de-militarized area intended to provide safety to non-combatants.

Risk:  For Syria and Russia to respect a safe zone it must protect non-combatants and remain neutral.  If Syrian opposition forces use the safe zone as a place from which to mount operations Syria and Russia could then justify attacking the safe zone [1].  If the safe zone is attacked by Syria and Russia, and U.S. and Coalition troops protecting the safe zone are killed or wounded, the U.S. risks war with Syria or Russia [2].  Additionally, if U.S. and Coalition troops discover Syrian opposition forces in the safe zone hostilities could erupt.  These hostilities could be used by ISIL or Al-Nusra to recruit new fighters and be a political embarrassment for the U.S. and the Coalition.

Establishing a safe zone will require a sizable neutral military presence that can deter attack and dissuade the Syrian opposition attempting to occupy the safe zone [3].  The military personnel protecting the safe zone must have clear rules of engagement and the overall safe zone mission will require a conditions-based arrival and exit strategy.  Just as important as establishing a safe zone is knowing when and how to extract oneself.  This goes beyond fear of media or political accusations of “being stuck in a quagmire” or “appeasement.”  Instead, the concern is based in judging whether the safe zone is becoming an obstacle to peace or worsening the situation.

Gain:  Establishing a safe zone will protect non-combatants thereby reducing the number of refugees overwhelming Syria’s Mid-East neighbors and Europe.  In the long-term, refugees that are unable to return to their homeland may destabilize the region by being unable to integrate into their host-nation’s society or by falling into the trap of radicalism[4].  Similar situations have happened in the 20th century with the Palestinian refugee crisis and Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Option #2:  Forgoing a safe zone.

Risk:  Not establishing a safe zone runs the long-term risks of regional instability or a new wave of radicalism that could be a problem for decades.  According to Stephen Walt, the U.S. has no interests in Syria to justify any involvement[5].  However, the Syrian Civil War has brought social and economic strain upon Syria’s neighbors and Europe.  In the Middle East, U.S. regional partners could turn their backs on the U.S. if they feel that the U.S. is not acting in their interests i.e. taking actions to stem the flow of refugees.  U.S. relationships in the Middle East are already strained due to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.  In Europe, refugee migration has ushered a wave of anti-European Union populism that questions the very international system of cooperation the U.S. has benefitted from since the end of World War II.  Were this questioning of the international system to fracture Europe, it would not be able to counter Russian aggression.

Gain:  The biggest advantage to forgoing the safe zone is the ability to keep other options open. U.S. and Coalition forces could be better used elsewhere, likely focusing on near-peer competitors such as Russia or China.  U.S. and Coalition forces could be employed in the Baltic States, or in the Pacific Rim to counter Russian aggression and China’s rise.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Joseph, E. P., & Stacey, J. A. (2016). A Safe Zone for Syria: Kerry’s Last Chance. Foreign Affairs. Accessed from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2016-10-05/safe-zone-syria

[2]  Bier, D. J. (2016). Safe Zones Won’t Save Syrians. National Interest. Accessed from http://nationalinterest.org/feature/safe-zones-wont-save-syrians-17979

[3]  Stout, M. (2015). [W]Archives: When “Safe Zones” Fail. War on the Rocks. Accessed from http://warontherocks.com/2015/07/warchives-when-safe-zones-fail/

[4]  Kristoff, N. (2016). Obama’s Worst Mistake [Op-Ed]. The New York Times. Accessed from http://nyti.ms/2aCJ54F

[5]  Walt, S. M. (2016). The Great Myth About U.S. Intervention in Syria. Foreign Policy. Accessed from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/24/the-great-myth-about-u-s-intervention-in-syria-iraq-afghanistan-rwanda/

Carlo Valle Civil War Islamic State Variants No-Fly or Safe Zone Option Papers Russia Syria United States

Syria Options: No Fly Zone & Syrians Rebuilding Syria Program

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.


Endnotes:

[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/

Abu Sisu Aid and Development Civil War No-Fly or Safe Zone Option Papers Refugees Russia Seshat Syria

Syria Options: No Fly Zone & Remove Assad

Barefoot Boomer is a U.S. Army officer and has served in both the Infantry and Armor.  He is currently a Strategic Planner serving in Texas.  He can be found on Twitter at @BarefootBoomer.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization, or group.


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

Date Originally Written:  November 23, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 19, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Barefoot Boomer is a Strategic Planner with the U.S. Army and has previously served in the Operation Inherent Resolve Coalition Headquarters which leads the U.S. effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Background:  Since the civil war in Syria began in 2011 there has been no limit to the suffering of the Syrian civilian population.  Not only has the violence caused regional instability and the largest refugee crisis in recent history, but the cost in civilian lives has grown exponentially, the siege of Aleppo being a prime example.  Thousands of civilians have been under siege in Aleppo for over two years, victims of Syrian and Russian aerial attacks.  Civilian targets, including hospitals and neighborhoods, have been bombed killing many.  Aid convoys attempting to relieve the siege have also been attacked by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian supporters.

Significance:  Nature abhors a vacuum.  So does U.S. foreign policy, hence the reason why the U.S. seeming inaction in Syria is mind-boggling to some.  Disturbing images of dead civilians, including heartbreaking pictures of young children, have provoked calls for the international community to “do something.”  The lawlessness and indiscriminate targeting of civilians as well as the huge flood of refugees streaming out of Syria has turned a civil war into an international crisis.  As the U.S. is the leader of the anti-ISIS Coalition, and would be the main executor of, and bear the brunt of any operation, it is prudent to understand the U.S. position as well as implications.  Any intervention by the U.S. and her allies is also significant to regional neighbors and actors, such as Syria and Russia.

Option #1:  Establish a no-fly zone in part of Syria.  A no-fly zone is airspace designated as off-limits to flight-related activities[1].

Risk:  There are numerous risks involved in establishing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians and refugees fleeing the ongoing fighting.  Militarily, attempting to set up a no-fly zone that could reasonably protect civilians would be a tremendous task.  The U.S. and her allies would have to use air power to establish air superiority to protect the area from Syrian and Russian air attacks.  This would mean conducting actions to suppress air defenses and destroy Syrian and Russian aircraft, either in the air or possibly on the ground.  It would also have to include hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. ground troops to support air operations.  The logistics involved would also be incredibly complex.  The political risks are just as daunting.  Seizing sovereign Syrian territory in order to establish a no-fly zone with U.S. troops would be a de facto invasion, which would anger Assad’s main ally, Russia.  The threat of U.S. and Russia confronting each other would rise exponentially, just as the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States Marine Corps General Joseph F. Dunford Jr has insinuated[2].

Gain:  There would be little gain from establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.  Not only would the immediate risks outweigh any perceived gains in the long-term but it would not necessarily help those people still trapped inside Aleppo or other population centers.

Option #2:  Remove Assad.

Risk:  Ultimately, the underlying cause of civilian deaths and suffering in Syria is the Syrian regime itself, led by President Bashar al-Assad.  If the U.S. and its’ Coalition of willing allies decided, under the auspices of a Responsibility to Protect[3] Syrian civilians, to attempt to address the underlying cause, they would become directly involved in the civil war and remove Assad from power.  The risks in doing so are enormous, not only to the U.S. and the Coalition, but to the Syrian people they would be attempting to help.  It would take hundreds of thousands of Coalition troops to do regime change similar to what the U.S. did in Iraq in 2003.  The U.S. public has little stomach for another Middle East regime changing war or the spending of blood and treasure that comes with it.

Gain:  Removing Assad would most assuredly lift the siege of Aleppo and relieve the horror civilians are experiencing on the ground but it would not necessarily stop the sectarian strife and political upheaval that are at the heart of the civil war.  If nothing else U.S. involvement would increase tensions with not only Russia and other regional actors but would embroil U.S. forces in another possibly decade-long occupation and stability operation.  More civilians, not less, may be caught up in the post-Assad violence that would certainly hamper efforts at rebuilding.

Other Comments:  Any decision made regarding involvement in Syria must come down to risk.  How much risk are the U.S. and her allies willing to take to ensure the safety of the Syrian people, and how much is there to gain from that risk.  Also, with a new U.S. President assuming office in January 2017, there is uncertainty about whether U.S. Syrian policy will stay the same or radically change.  Ultimately, weighing the spending of blood and treasure to establish a no-fly zone in Syria must be bounded within the confines of U.S. national security interests.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  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/

[2]  Dunford tells Wicker controlling airspace in Syria means war with Russia. (2016, September 25). Retrieved November 19, 2016, from https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4621738/dunford-tells-wicker-controlling-airspace-syria-means-war-russia-mccain-throws-tantrum-dunford

[3]  Office of The Special Adviser on The Prevention of Genocide. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2016, from http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml

Barefoot Boomer Civil War Islamic State Variants Leadership Change No-Fly or Safe Zone Option Papers Russia Syria United States