An Assessment of Legality, Logistics and Hazards
Brigadier General Akil Hachim (Ret.)
Military Advisor to Syrian National Council
Photograph show activists brandishing signs asking for NATO fighter planes over Damascus; there is even a social network group titled “NATO4Syria.” And yet, calls for a “no-fly zone” connote some form of international military assistance, not necessarily the one described. Even in the Western press, references to a no-fly
zone or to the “Libyan model” go unexamined in terms of their applicability to Syria, even though any sensible or feasible intervention in Syria would be sui generis. Turkey has been mulling the imposition of a “buffer zone” for months, to little tangible effect. Yet if ever a moment to intervene in Syria presented itself to Turkey, it should have arrived in mid-June, when more than 10,000 refugees from Jisr al-Shoghour fled to Antakya, or after the recent regime-sponsored raids on
the Turkish embassy in Damascus, consulates in Aleppo and Lattakia and hajj pilgrims in Homs.
It has become clear that Ankara is not going to launch a unilateral military operation against a neighbouring country that, less than a year ago, was being hailed as its great commercial and diplomatically. Turkey has never conducted a humanitarian intervention on its own and is unlikely to begin one now. Therefore, a multilateral intervention similar to Operation Provide Comfort and either led by NATO or by an Anglo-French-American-Turkish coalition would be the most feasible option for military intervention in Syria. At present, the most achievable option would be to establish a “safe area” in the country to provide refuge for embattled civilians from other cities and towns, a base of operations for the designated political leadership of the Syrian opposition as well as a military command centre — in other words, a Syrian Benghazi.
Without such a domestic hub for a transitional government, the opposition
will find it incredibly difficult to formulate a long-term strategy, much less
adaptable tactics, for toppling the regime. A cohesive physical space for
freedom of movement within Syria is a necessary precondition for toppling
the regime, if only to facilitate communication between the SNC and FSA as
well as within the opposition more generally. A safe area would also house
an encryption-enabled communications directorate featuring unobstructed wireless access and satellite transmission signals for broadcasting ”Free Syria” television and
radio programs to the rest of the country.
There is currently a favourable window of opportunity for this option. The regular army has been exhausted due to its prolonged deployment in multiple urban and rural areas throughout the country. Morale among regular troops has plummeted and the ability of the regime to logistically sustain units other than the Special Forces and shabbiha militia is increasingly tenuous. The risks associated with the most robust option — an aerial campaign matched by a small ground operation
– are mitigated in part by the relative weakness of Assad’s regular forces and military assets.
Offering the regime additional time to consolidate and explore alternative means to shore up their resources will enhance risk for future intervention. Although the psychological and strategic impact of a safe area cannot be quantified, it should not be dismissed nor underestimated. The boost to activists’ morale in knowing that a part of Syria has been unalterably liberated is likely to be significant, particularly in light of the fact that after nine months of facing brutality and traumatisation, the activists are still protesting daily. For similar reasons, the rate of military defections will likely increase if soldiers discover that, rather than living in exile in Turkey or Lebanon or Jordan (where their fate is uncertain), they have the option of repairing to a revolutionary headquarters. Because the Syrian Air Force might attempt combat sorties and try to obstruct the establishment of a safe area, a pre-emptive aerial campaign would have to be waged to neutralize the regime’s air defence systems, particularly in Aleppo and Lattakia and in and around Damascus.
Given the dynamics on the ground, the best location in which to establish a safe area would be Idlib province in Jisr al-Shoghour, near the Turkish border and Mediterranean shore. Not only are the bulk of defecting soldiers located there already, but the devastation wrought by a multi-pronged invasion of Jisr al-Shoghour last June has resulted in high anti-Assad sentiment in this province.
Additionally, Jisr al-Shoghour is sandwiched between mountainous terrain, with a valley region that extends northward into Turkey and southward into the rest of Syria, making ground offensives by the regime from east or west difficult (this was one of the reasons that attack helicopters were used in June). A supply corridor from Turkey into Jisr al-Shoghour would benefit from the natural fortification of Syrian topography.
An air strike could be waged by U.S., British, French and Turkish aircraft, facilitated by support aircraft from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan, all of which participated in enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone. U.S. Special Forces, the Special Air Service and Turkish and Qatari Special Forces could coordinate on the ground with rebel Syrian soldiers to establish an 11-square-kilometer perimeter around Jisr al-Shoghour. Training of additional defectors could be conducted at Incirlik Air Base and other regional bases or at a makeshift rebel base in the safe area itself.
One incentive for launching a preliminary aerial campaign to secure a safe area is the proven weakness of Syria’s air defence systems. In 2007, the Israeli Air Force was easily able to bomb the Syrian nuclear facility at al-Kibar, first by jamming the regime’s radars to make it seem as if no planes were in the sky, then by creating “phantom” blips of hundreds of planes seemingly everywhere within Syrian air space. The U.S. has similar technology. In short, with multilateral support, and the coordination of rebel units on the ground, an aerial campaign can prove strategically decisive, while meeting U.S., Western and regional security aims — including the stated desire of regional Arab and Western leaders to see Assad gone.
As with Operation Provide Comfort, logistics of an aerial assault could be coordinated from Incirlik Air Base, the key NATO Southern Region base, which currently houses over 1,161 U.S., 215 British and 41 Turkish personnel and which the U.S. has used to run missions into Iraq. Additionally, the U.S. Sixth Fleet is stationed in Naples, Italy, and the UK’s Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and
Dhekelia in Cyprus have more than sufficient capabilities to enforce a naval blockade of Syria, while countering any Syrian naval offensives. (Despite Russia’s positioning in the Mediterranean, the chances are exceedingly slim that the Kremlin would engage U.S. or UK vessels in direct combat.)
Creating an internationally protected zone on partitioned land in Syria is indeed a form of military intervention. The creation and success of a safe area or partitioned zone should include Arab or Turkish participants as a matter of legitimacy (much the way Qatari intelligence was a part of the Libyan intervention), but it will nevertheless require the technical expertise, sophistication andexpertise of major Western powers.