No-fly zone is best of bad options for Syria
Opinion: Syria is already worse than Iraq at its most violent, and there are no signs of the conflict waning
Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons as their move towards their positions in the al-Ziyabiya area in Damascus earlier this month. Photograph: Ward Al-Keswani/Reuters
Let’s be clear: There are no good options left in Syria.
The government of Bashar al-Assad has a large arsenal of weapons as well as the diplomatic and financial support of Russia and Iran. Rebels fighting the regime number in the tens of thousands and are skilled at overrunning and looting government military bases.
In the middle, extremist groups including the al-Qaeda- aligned Jabhat al-Nusra are contributing to the destruction of a country’s social fabric. Perhaps 100,000 people have died, and the government in Damascus is shaken and weakening, though still a distance from collapse.
Two years in, and with no victor in sight, eyes turn west for a solution.
Britain and France have repeatedly called for the lifting of an EU embargo on weapons sales to Syria, an issue that is up for review later this month. They want to arm “desirable” rebel groups so they gain an advantage over the extreme Islamist factions and defeat the Assad regime. US president Barack Obama has seen Syria confound his policy of extracting the US from messy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But calls for US involvement in Syria are growing among leading US politicians.
Loss of interest
Three massacres and the apparent use of chemical weapons in recent weeks illustrate the depth and speed to which Syria is sinking. In spite of this, the world community has long since lost interest in the plight of more than a million refugees and the thousands of dead and injured. For many, it is just another Middle Eastern war.
A limited, Nato-led no-fly zone is perhaps the best in a bad line of options to help end the conflict. A no-fly scenario would stop Damascus from dropping bombs – which opposition groups report have killed at least 4,300 civilians since last July – on civilian neighbourhoods.
Rebels complain that along with weapons shortages, an obstacle to defeating the Syrian government is the latter’s supremacy in the skies. Even as the government loses control of territory across Syria, it is able to stop rebels from advancing on cities by strafing the towns and highways where rebels operate.
A Nato-enforced no-fly zone would stop government aircraft from bombing civilians and rebels; it would also allow fighters to push on the capital Damascus and to one day take control of the city and end the war – in its current form at least. Furthermore, it would allow opposition leaders to set up a government in the north, which would see the Syrian National Coalition regain infrastructural control of towns and cities there.
Civilians in the north have been drawn to Islamist groups largely because they provide bread, gas and security – not because they share the religiosity espoused by the extremist fighters. An interim government on Syrian soil would serve as the foundation for a post-Assad state and show the millions of Syrians disillusioned with the opposition that it is more than a talking shop.
Talk of western intervention turning Syria into another Iraq is misplaced: death tolls reported from Syria – if accurate – for almost every month since last summer are higher than the most violent stages of the Iraqi conflict. Syria is not Iraq because it is already worse than Iraq, and there are no signs of the Syrian conflict waning.
Western-led military interventions in Muslim and Arab countries have had a disastrous recent history and should be avoided. But the conflict in Syria will drag on for years, spark further sectarian hatred and suck in the wider region if the situation continues. Aside from the moral obligation to help the millions of Syrians in need, there is a responsibility to stop extremist groups from destabilising Syria and its neighbours. The grounding of Assad’s aircraft is the least bad way to do so.
Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria for five years until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-witness to the Uprising