By: Alexander Decina
Given the atrocities witnessed during the course of the Syrian civil war—be it the Bashar al-Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs or the depravity of the so-called Islamic State—it is hardly surprising to hear continued frustration at U.S. and Western inaction. Some have estimated the death toll to be higher than 250,000—a number that will surely increase given Russia’s intervention and the recent surge in Iranian efforts. In the United States, not only Republican candidates and policymakers, but also prominent Democratic figures including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have called for the creation of either safe zones, a no-fly zone, or both. These options were most recently discussed in July this year, when Turkey authorised the United States to use its Incirlik airbase to launch sorties, but the Obama Administration has yet to enact such measures. While some advocates of safe or no-fly zones consider this a failure and lament the lack of U.S. leadership, these proponents fail to answer, or perhaps ask, an important question – “And then what?”
Critics, activists, and leaders in the United States and abroad, have called for the creation of safe zones to protect civilians from the forces loyal to the Assad regime and the Islamic State. One such safe zone discussed could be up to 60 miles long and 25 miles deep into Syria along its border with Turkey. If established, the area would serve as a crucial operation centre for various elements of the Syrian opposition, ranging from those affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to the more dominant and radical groups including Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which are under the Army of Conquest umbrella. It remains to be seen who would be tasked with enforcing this safe zone. Placing U.S. or other Western troops on the ground would be highly undesirable, not only for the sending countries, but also for communities in Syria in the long run. If Turkey, which has pushed for the establishment of the safe zone, sent its own troops, this would inevitably result in clashes with the Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The Kurds have already accused Ankara of bombing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Alternatively, Arab countries opposed to Iranian influence could send their troops to Syria as they have in Yemen, but the last thing Syria needs is the influx of additional foreign fighters on either side of the conflict. Perhaps it would be best if Syrian groups themselves controlled the area, but such an endeavour would require far more weapons and support than the United States and the West are currently providing.
If more aid is needed for the opposition to enforce the safe zones, then which of the Syrian groups should Washington support? The administration has recently come under fire for its limited success in training and equipping Syrian rebels, yet the smaller numbers are not due to a lack of resources but rather the high vetting standards for the rebels. There are reports that the Department of Defense is lowering these standards, but this, if true, would be a dangerous move. There are numerous challenges to the vetting process, mainly stemming from the lack of information available on the individuals in question. However, even if with lower vetting thresholds the United States continues to restrict equipment provisions to FSA-affiliated groups only, this still poses substantial risks. There have been multiple reports of FSA fighters, and sometimes entire units, joining forces with Nusra. Short of this, there is also nothing to stop FSA groups from selling, if not surrendering, weapons to more extreme militias including ones they are actively fighting.
Thus, the more material support Washington supplies to any Syrian rebels, even the FSA, the higher the likelihood that those weapons and ammunition will fall into the hands of Nusra and other radical groups. Some may argue that if the FSA is strengthened, it will be less vulnerable and less susceptible to defections and loss of equipment, however this is unlikely. Considering how fragmented the FSA’s brigades are, it is hard to believe that it could stand as a cohesive entity against Nusra or the Army of Conquest, especially given that the latter groups are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey—all of which use far less discretion than the United States. As such, these jihadist groups will surely maintain their edge over the moderate elements of FSA. With safe zones keeping the Assad regime, the regime’s backers, and the Islamic State out of large pockets of Syria—and absent strong opponents within the Syrian opposition—Nusra and groups like it will surely reap further benefits. And then what? Is tipping the scales against Assad worth bolstering Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate?
A No-Fly Zone
If a safe zone is too complicated to establish effectively, then shouldn’t the United States and its allies at least implement a no-fly zone? Protecting Syrian civilians from the indiscriminate barrel bombings of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) is indeed a worthy goal. However, even if decisions concerning Russian maneuverability within the airspace were placed aside, this measure would still have its complications. Horrific as the SAAF’s attacks are, it does more than target civilians or even the FSA. It also targets the extreme jihadist organisations mentioned earlier by attacking their leadership, stockpiles, and supply routes. Having cleared the SAAF (and perhaps Russian jets) from the skies, would the United States be prepared to pick up the mantle of neutralizing jihadist organisations that pose a legitimate threat?
It is worth remembering the case of Ansar al-Sharia, one of the Islamist militias that rose up under the cover of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone in Libya. After the September 2012 attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi (which Ansar al-Sharia is suspected of carrying out), Benghazans stormed the group’s headquarters. Ansar al-Sharia then withdrew, only to return the following year with weapons looted from Muammar al-Gaddafi’s stockpiles. In coordination with other Islamist and revolutionary militias, Ansar al-Sharia took control of Benghazi in the summer of 2014. While it has lost control of most of the city and has been weakened since last year, the group still conducts its operations and retains its stockpiles and training camps. Thus, its fighters still pose a real threat in Libya and abroad.
When applying the lessons of Libya to Syria, if the United States and its allies are to impose a no-fly zone, what will be their response when such measures inevitably bolster Nusra and other radical forces? Thus far, the United States has conducted strikes on Nusra concurrently with its attacks on the Islamic State, but this has not yet had a major impact on the group. If Washington were intensify these efforts and mount a serious campaign against Nusra, its fighters and leadership could either temporarily recede into the background as Ansar al-Sharia did, splinter off into new Sunni groups, or even join allied groups in the Army of Conquest umbrella that the United States is less likely to target.
And then what? If the United States were to aggressively continue targeting Nusra’s members after the group’s disbanding—an operational approach that would be wrought with imprecision and mistakes due to insufficient information—such measures would not be well received by the Sunni community in Syria and the region. Furthermore, Nusra would be able to continue building its weapons stockpiles, whether under its own name or under the auspices of other groups, and the United States would have no reliable means to prevent this.
U.S. Limitations in Syria
The creation of either a safe zone or a no-fly zone risks bolstering radical groups within the Syrian opposition by increasing their access to weapons and support. It will neither tip the scales and overwhelm Assad, nor bring an end to the conflict, but will instead contribute to prolonging it. Thus it is imperative the United States understands the very real limitations it has in addressing the Syrian civil war. Although extraordinarily difficult, instead of a limited intervention, Washington should work towards creating an environment in which Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and other states will be willing to stem the flow of weapons and support to both the opposition and the Assad regime. This is an arduous undertaking that may indeed be impossible, but the alternative should not involve adopting a short-sighted policy that lacks a realistic end goal. Frustrating as it may be, acting for the sake of acting is a reckless approach. Thus, before attempting to alter the situation in Syria, the Obama administration, and future administrations, must ask themselves “And then what?”
Alexander Decina is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He previously worked for the Tripoli, Libya-based Sadeq Institute and for the Sustainable Democracy Center in Beirut, Lebanon.