For Syrians, a no-fly zone of their own

By David Axe
October 11, 2013

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For two years, the rebels in Al Qusayr held out against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Then in April the regime, supported by fresh fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, renewed its attack on the mountain town overlooking the Lebanon border.

But it wasn’t Hezbollah that made the difference. It was the relentless bombardment by Assad’s air force that shattered the rebel defenses — killing 80 opposition fighters and sending the survivors into retreat. Assad’s jets and helicopters, unleashed against rebels and civilians alike in mid-2012, have proved a decisive force in the now 30-month Syrian civil war.

Because of this aerial onslaught, the rebels have begged the United States and its allies in the North American Treaty Organization to enforce a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas concentrated in Syria’s mountainous north. Barring that, opposition leaders have an alternative proposal: Washington and its allies supply rebel fighters with the weapons they need to defend a no-fly zone on their own.

But Washington says these weapons pose a security risk. So it remains unlikely that the United States will offer them to Syrian fighters.

No-fly politics

No-fly zones, enforced by air-defense missiles and jet fighters, have developed into a favorite tool of international intervention. Twin U.S. no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq protected ethnic and religious minorities from dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and early 2000s. A NATO no-fly zone shielded civilians and rebels from Serbian forces in Kosovo in the late 1990s. In 2011, NATO flew top-cover for Libyan rebels.

But despite the pleas of Syria’s rebel leaders, neither the United States nor NATO has advocated a no-fly zone — for several reasons. For one, all major no-fly zones have been legitimized by resolutions by the United Nations Security Council. But Russia, a strong ally of Syria, holds veto power over U.N. Security Council resolutions. “Without Russian consent,” says independent aerospace expert Tom Cooper, “there will be no U.N. approval. And without U.N. approval [President Barack] Obama will not order the U.S. military to move.”

American military leaders are not inclined to support a unilateral U.S. no-fly zone, in part due to the American aircrews’ elevated risk. Though Libyan regime forces only put up minimal resistance, the Pentagon still lost two warplanes enforcing the 2011 no-fly zone. Fortunately, one of the downed U.S. aircraft was a drone helicopter; the two-man crew of the other plane, an F-15, successfully ejected.

Syria’s airspace would be far more difficult to control. Russian-made, long-range air-defense missiles with updated Chinese radar, situated deep within the Syria regime’s territory, can hit targets over virtually all of populated Syria. And Assad appears to have held at least one squadron of his best air-to-air fighters in reserve, specifically to combat foreign intervention.

National security analyst Anthony Cordesman, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, supports a no-fly zone. But he cautions the mission could be difficult for the United States — even with all the damage Assad’s regime has suffered. “Syrian forces,” Cordesman wrote, “are almost certainly still far more effective than those of Libya.”

Nearly three years into the civil war, Assad’s aircraft roam freely over Syria. NATO missiles and Turkish and Jordanian jets keep the Syrian warplanes from wandering over borders, but the planes fly near the borders with impunity. Assad’s jets have bombed rebels and refugees mere yards from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Turkey. They have also turned the tide in Al Qusayr and many other battlegrounds.

Helping rebels help themselves

Colonel Zeyad Haaj Abayed had served for 29 years in the Syrian air force, flying jets and helicopters. Like many other regime officers, he defected to the rebel cause after the regime attacked peaceful demonstrators in 2011. Now a top commander in the rebel Free Syrian Army’s eastern command, Abayed puts his combat flying experience to work teaching opposition fighters to target regime aircraft using heavy machine guns.

The key, he tells them, is to shoot aircraft in the tail as they pull up and away after a bombing run.

Using that method, rebels have managed to shoot down “a few” regime warplanes — mostly helicopters, Abayed told Reuters in an interview. Sitting in a dingy Free Syrian Army headquarters in Bab al-Hawa, surrounded by his personal squad of young fighters, Abayed seems to accept that the West will probably not be sending F-15s to clear the skies of Assad’s planes.

His fighters could do the job themselves, Abayed insisted. They just need “a small number” of heat-seeking, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, like U.S.-made Stingers or Russian SA-7s. The Stingers the CIA provided to the Mujahideen Islamic rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s helped them shoot down scores of aircraft belonging to the occupying Soviet forces.

Syrian rebels have gotten their hands on a few such missiles. At least two YouTube videos show opposition fighters firing the guided projectiles at marauding regime aircraft. It’s unclear how or from whom the rebels acquired the rockets.

To be sure, Abayed meant sustained supplies of surface-to-air missiles. “With SA-7s,” he said, “we would be able to make our own no-fly zone.”

Though that could resolve the West’s current diplomatic quandary, by allowing the United States to strike back at Assad’s warplanes without requiring a U.N. resolution or deploying any U.S. forces, there are also the long-term consequences to consider. Washington considers surface-to-air missiles a particularly dangerous weapon. In the wrong hands, these missiles could threaten U.S. military operations in other countries, or terrorists could use them to shoot down civilian airliners. “Countering the proliferation of man-portable air defense systems,” a State Department official said, “… is a top U.S. national security priority.”

So Abayed probably can’t count on supplies of missiles. And Syrian warplanes are likely to continue their relentless bombardment.

 

PHOTO (Top): A Syrian Air Force fighter plane fires a rocket during an air strike loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, June 10, 2013. REUTERS/Nour Fourat  

PHOTO (Insert 1): Syrian rebels and a captured air-defense missile. CREDIT/Juma al Qassim

PHOTO (Insert 2): Residents rummage through the debris left of their homes for their belongings after what activists said was an air attack from forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Bab Neirab, Aleppo, July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

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