Item number 1 on the agenda of the hawks in the U.S. foreign policy establishment is to order the American military to impose a no-fly zone over at least part of Syria. The hawks, who dominate in the Hillary Clinton campaign, insist that U.S. warplanes can protect civilians from air attacks by the Assad regime and its Russian allies. Critics have warned that the measure risks an air war with Russia.
But what if a Syria no-fly zone is impossible to impose in strictly military terms? Colonel Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha and Major Mike “Pako” Benitez are American military veterans with 406 combat missions between them. In a detailed post at the increasingly important War on the Rocks website, they argue that a no-fly zone over Syria would be “much more difficult than the casual strategist or armchair operational planner realizes.”
The two men review the no-fly zones that were established over Serbia/Kosovo (1999) and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (1998-2003), and explain that Syria in 2016 is entirely different. There was no “meaningful resistance” in Serbia or Iraq, but Pietrucha and Benitez point out that the Assad regime today is armed with anti-aircraft missiles and is ready to use them. The two explain:
By comparison to Kosovo’s 41 1960s-era SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], Syria’s robust air defenses total over 130 systems, most of which are vastly more lethal than their older counterparts. As many as a dozen encompass the area surrounding Aleppo, the crucible of the civil war. Syria also has over 4000 air defense artillery pieces and a few thousand portable infrared-guided missile systems.
The two veterans remind us that Serbia, despite its much more primitive air defenses, still shot down two U.S. warplanes. Pietrucha and Benitez add that the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated back in 2013 that a Syria no-fly zone would cost $1 billion a month — ten times the cost of imposing a no-fly zone over Iraq.
Pietrucha and Benitez do not ignore the millions of Syrian refugees. But they caution that
a no-fly zone is problematic for both practical and policy reasons, as the majority of civilian casualties do not occur from air attack. The challenges of protecting civilian populations in a multi-faceted civil war are far more comprehensive than anything seen before.
It is yet another measure of the unjust world we live in that the United States is so powerful that American citizens must concern ourselves with the effectiveness of our warplanes against missile defenses halfway across the globe. But if we ignore these kinds of seemingly technical questions, the foreign policy elites in Washington will make more bad decisions for us.