The clear need is not for Britain to add its own intervention to that already taking place. It is for a negotiated diplomatic end to the dreadful civil war that has laid waste to Syria.

Stop the War Coalition Briefing

Syria: Safe Havens and No-Fly Zones

October 2015


  1. The creation of safe havens or no-fly zones requires the ability to engage in military operations and to take out the enemy’s air defence systems.
  2. Military intervention would risk a military clash with Russia.
  3. Islamic State would not be threatened by a no-fly zone since it lacks an air force. The Assad government and those supporting it can be the only target of such military operations: the goal is regime change.
  4. Previous no-fly zones did not prevent attacks on minorities and endangered populations (e.g. the Iraq government’s attack on the southern March Arabs) but escalated the levels of violence.
  5. The 2011 no-fly zone in Libya helped to create a full-blown war, tens of thousands of casualties, regime change and a collapsed state.
  6. The war in Syria includes a complex combination of actors: the Assad government and Russia, IS, the US and its international and regional allies (including Saudi Arabia, the Free Syrian Army and the local al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front), as well as Kurdish groups (some of which are being attacked by Turkey).
  7. Instead of getting involved militarily in this dangerous quagmire, Britain can provide much greater help to the people of Syria by seriously focusing on humanitarian aid and on helping to facilitate peace talks.

Safe Havens and No-Fly Zones

The calls for the UK to become involved in the bombing of Syria have been motivated by different reasons. Two years ago, when parliament debated – and rejected – calls for such bombing, the justification for it was to bomb President Assad’s forces, given his alleged use of chemical weapons against the opposition in the civil war there.

Now, motivation for the bombing has been put in terms of air strikes on ISIS or Daesh, seemingly regardless of the fact that had the original plan for bombing been carried through in 2013, as the Prime Minister wished, then ISIS would almost certainly be in control of much larger parts of Syrian territory than it is now.

Perhaps this contradiction has led to a third reason being put forward: the creation of safe havens and no-fly zones aimed at protecting large numbers of Syrian civilians without them having to leave their country. This is an argument put forward by Conservative Andrew Mitchell and Labour’s Jo Cox (Observer 11.10.15) as the focus of Western intervention in the already beleaguered country.

The impression given is that such humanitarian intervention could be achieved relatively easily at little cost militarily or in terms of human lives.

But this is untrue. The creation of safe havens or no-fly zones in countries already affected by war is in itself a military operation. They require the ability, in the case of no-fly zones, to take out the enemy’s air defence systems (not insubstantial in the case of the Syrian state, and even more difficult now that Russia is directly involved in bombing there). They also require the military ability and political will to shoot down aircraft which do not comply with the no-fly zone – thus leading to further escalation of a war.

Russia’s escalating military involvement in Syria should be opposed. But it is happening, and it is hard to see what form of military intervention could now be undertaken which would avoid a clash with Russia. Even the head of MI6 has acknowledged that such no-fly zones are no longer a possibility, unless the NATO powers are prepared to risk conflict with Moscow. Julian Lewis, the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, has also warned about the folly of risking a military confrontation with Russia in this way.

Similarly, safe havens need military force to back them up. That requires ground troops provided by those intervening – a prospect from which most Western governments at present recoil, preferring to send money and arms to proxies, or to use their own troops simply for ‘training’ purposes.

Even when there are troops on the ground, the evidence of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia 20 years ago demonstrates that they are no safeguard against killing and that there have to be much more far reaching solutions to war.

Regime Change

The terms no-fly zones and safe havens may sound benign but in reality they lead to regime change. There can be only one target for no fly zones: the Assad government and those supporting it. Islamic State would not be threatened by such a move since it lacks an air force.

If anyone doubts that regime change is the real agenda, they should consider two previous instances of no fly zones. After the first Gulf War, no-fly zones were imposed over parts of Iraq. In practice, they did not prevent attacks on minorities (for example Saddam Hussein’s attack on the southern Marsh Arabs); instead they contributed to a militarised and punitive intervention that, along with sanctions, led to further war.

In 2011, David Cameron and then French President Sarkozy pushed the United Nations to endorse a no-fly zone in Libya. This was ostensibly to protect the people of Benghazi from a massacre that Libyan ruler Gadhafi was then allegedly contemplating.

Enforcing the no-fly zone quickly morphed into bombing Libyan government troops, in coordination with the anti-Gadhafi rebels on the ground. The result was the swift transition of humanitarian intervention into regime change. Gadhafi was overthrown, but there have been no successful outcomes in Libya. Today, the results are clear: Libya is a ruined and divided country, a centre of terrorism and civil war, with effectively two warring governments. This shattered society is the starting point for hundreds of thousands of refugees risking life and limb to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

In Syria today, the winners from a war to set up safe havens, which would involve the deployment of grounds troops into Syria, would most likely be IS. It would be best placed to expand into many of the areas cleared of regime forces.

In addition, Turkey and the US have agreed a ‘buffer zone’ in Syria since the summer. But Turkey has used this development to attack not ISIS but the Kurds, who it regards as a greater threat but who have been fighting ISIS in areas such as Kobane

The proposals for these sorts of intervention ignore the realities on the ground. They are a response to the cry ‘something must be done’ which ignores the fact that so much has been done in the region already, the vast majority of it harmful to the people of Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

UK Intervention

The ostensible aim of such moves is to help the suffering people in Syria, and to stem the tide of refugees. But the refugees are fleeing war in huge numbers. Everything should be done to help them in this immediate aim, rather than leaving them in areas where they still face danger. The European countries should have a much more generous response in allowing many of them to come to live here, rather than in camps in the Middle East.

Real humanitarian aid, rather than endless military interventions at great cost financially and in human terms, would do more to help the people of Syria, as would real progress towards peace talks.

Instead, safe havens and no-fly zone plans only fuel the fantasies of neo-conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic who dream of creating a third force capable to taking over Syria in opposition both to Assad and to Islamic State. Yet such attempts have failed. Obama’s efforts to create a militia to carry out such a plan have ended in fiasco. So they are left with the non-IS rebel groups in Syria. These include the Free Syrian Army and the local al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front.

These groups are drawing support from a range of foreign powers, including the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other reactionary Gulf states. The Assad government is actively supported by Russia and Iran.

The clear need is not for Britain to add its own intervention to that already taking place. It is for a negotiated diplomatic end to the dreadful civil war that has laid waste to Syria. Ultimately, only the Syrian people can determine their own future political arrangements. But the foreign powers could assist by all ending their military interventions, open and clandestine, in Syria – ending the bombing and the arming of one side or another.

Source: Stop the War Coalition

03 Nov 2015

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