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What if the Syria no-fly zone won’t fly?

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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.

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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27 Responses

  1. gamal on October 26, 2016, 2:42 pm

    almost 100% of the Syrian airforce is Sunni, no worries they ain’t going to fight for Alawites.

    “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”

    if only there was a word for Empire in English, it would be so much easier to explain.

    • Keith on October 26, 2016, 3:41 pm

      GAMAL- “if only there was a word for Empire in English, it would be so much easier to explain.”

      Indeed! Also, do empires ever intervene for humanitarian reasons? And isn’t our current endless war on terrorism the very essence of fascism?

      “Modern fascism should be properly called corporatism, since it is the merger of state, military and corporate power.” (Benito Mussolini)

  2. Egbert on October 26, 2016, 2:57 pm

    The Russians have been upgrading a Syrian military airbase, T-4, about 60 km west of Palmyra. When that is complete, and the aircover of west Syria is enhanced by the aircaft on the Kuznetsoz, the Russians will move a isgnificant amount of air forces there. That will include S-400s to protect the airfield, along with other shorter range systems.

    Currently the S-400 air defense system barely extends to Deir ez Zor and Raqqa. Once located at T-4, the will cover all of east Syria, appart for the very north eastern tip between Iraq and Turkey. The airbase will enable them to clear wahabbists from Raqqa and Deir ez Zor, and all points east in Syria.

    Russia will then have a de facto fully legitimate no-fly zone (should it wish) over 99% of Syria. It is legally covered both by express permission of the legitimate Syrian government and the UN article of self-defense invoked following the shoot down of the Russian A320 in Egypt.

    For the US to establish their own, outside of UN legitimacy, they would have to destroy all Syrian and Russian land and air forces. That includes those within Syria itself and those in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Syria.

    And that would be an act of war.

  3. gamal on October 26, 2016, 3:12 pm

    “And that would be an act of war.”

    yes but on the other hand there is no denying Syrians are meddling in Syria.

  4. Kay24 on October 26, 2016, 4:43 pm

    It is very, very sad, that the results of this huge mess, are innocent civilians, especially little children, suffering beyond imagination. Assad/US and it’s allies/Russia/ISIS, and those playing proxy wars, do not really give a damn for the people. War mongers involved in this conflict use the people as the justification of their involvement, but if they really cared this would not have been so complicated. Meanwhile it seems little children are dying while fleeing, and those remaining behind are dying of terrible diseases. This reminds me of the children of Iraq who suffered without medical help and medicines during the time of sanctions against Iraq. At the end we bombed them anyway. It is so sad that as always it is the innocent people that suffer most.

    “Before the war, public hospitals provided free medical care to all cancer patients. But violence isn’t the only thing hitting hospitals hard. The Syrian government says that EU and U.S. sanctions on the country have made the work of public hospitals near impossible.

    Dr. Mazen Haddad, Director of General Children’s hospital, says with the sanctions imposed on Syria, they can’t get the medical equipment or medication.

    “We can’t get it from Europe, which is where we used to get our supplies. And while public hospitals continue to receive all the cases, we can only provide 50 percent of the needed cancer medication,” said Dr. Haddad. “So we had to ask parents to buy the treatment themselves, though prices have multiplied twenty-fold. We are admitting the children, but we can’t treat them all.”

    Many argue that the government is spending on the wrong thing. Children’s hospitals, after all, may not be a priority for a country at war.

    Sanctions have affected every aspect of life here. Perhaps this is why activists have launched a campaign to lift the sanctions, with posters spread across the capital.”

  5. mcohen. on October 26, 2016, 4:46 pm

    the usa is allowing the russians to end israeli air superiority.hence the usa limited involvement in syria but not iraq.tanks are neutralized as 2006 showed and now in syria.the basic rpg in numbers never mind the tow or kornet has reduced tanks as a offensive weapon.
    so that leaves tunnels and infantry.special forces for raids.missiles may be useful against radar but they are not tested.if russian radar is neutralized in syria.both on sea and land then the no fly zone is eyes no spies

  6. ritzl on October 26, 2016, 5:23 pm

    “Pietrucha and Benitez do not ignore the millions of Syrian refugees.”


    Is the implication of this observation that a West-imposed “no-fly zone” would help alleviate the refugee crisis in Syria?


    Since there were no refugees and IDPs (now 50% of the Syrian population) prior to our murderously illegal attempt to invade and overthrow Assad and carve up Syria to suit our geopolitical desires du moment, the only way to end the refugee crisis is to wipe out the wahhabi mercenaries and their affiliates and end the war. That’s not something that is “problematic” to a “no-fly zone,” that’s the opposite of one.

    The starting and ending points for these types of second- or third-tier issues posed as top-level considerations is “Just Don’t Do It!” If that had been the guiding principle five years ago there would not be a Million dead Syrians (by the time this is over, assuming Assad prevails), a refugee crisis, and no need to contemplate “how many aircraft can fly on the head of a pin…”

    • echinococcus on October 26, 2016, 6:23 pm

      Ritzl & Egbert,

      Thanks for a breath of sanity.
      I can’t figure out why these posts keep coming up on MW though, seeing the wide range of sensitivities in the audience.

  7. oneangrycomic on October 27, 2016, 8:10 am

    We could end most of our problems by implementing a “No AIPAC” zone over Washington, D.C. The sooner, the better!

  8. iResistDe4iAm on October 27, 2016, 10:29 am

    What if the Syrian government (with the help of its allies) imposes a no-fly zone over its sovereign territory?

    What if the Syrian government (with the help of its allies) seals the Syrian borders cutting off access and supply lines to the foreign invaders financed, armed & trained by foreign governments including USA, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Britain, Turkey, Jordan, and many others?

    This is how the war on Syria will end in 2017 (no-fly zone and sealed borders).

  9. mcohen. on October 28, 2016, 5:30 am

    rest asurred peace is around the corner

  10. gamal on October 31, 2016, 11:29 am

    shams al sharkarchi at al-araby reports: Iraqi Soldiers Need Drink to Fight:

    “Being on the front line against Islamic State militants group requires strength, determination and bravery. Oh, and a stiff drink.

    The power of Dutch courage apparently knows no bounds.

    An Iraqi MP has claimed troops currently facing a long and difficult battle to chase IS out of its last stronghold in the country need a stiff drink to help.

    “Without it they may not fight,” said Mashan al-Jabouri, a senior member of the al-Arabiya Coalition party, who says he will appeal the ban on alcohol, passed by the Baghdad government last week.

    If sober, soldiers could jeopardise the long-awaited offensive against IS, and then the drinks are on Jabouri.”

  11. lproyect on October 31, 2016, 11:41 am

    So interesting that when a reasonable article is posted about the problems of a NFZ, you get all the same tired and propagandistic defenses of the Assad dictatorship that is responsible for seven times as many casualties as ISIS and that has led to half the country being forced to leave its homes. One guy refers to a “murderously illegal attempt to invade” Syria. Was I missing something? When the USA wants to invade a country, it doesn’t take 5 years. Just ask Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan or Grenada. I suppose he is referring to the rebels who only took up arms in 2011 to defend peaceful protestors. Yes, I know. They weren’t really peaceful protestors. They were murderous mobs that the democratically elected government had to defend a peace-loving population from.

    • Sibiriak on October 31, 2016, 10:12 pm

      lproyect: I suppose he is referring to the rebels who only took up arms in 2011 to defend peaceful protestors.

      So interesting when a slanderous, amoral, fact-phobic propagandist makes the insanely ludicrous assertion that Western/Saudi et al -backed Islamist rebels and terrorists were motivated to take up arms simply to “defend peaceful protesters”.

      Why, surely that noble motivation must explain the “rebels” noble actions in Aleppo:

      Syrian rebels’ Aleppo offensive could amount to war crimes, UN envoy warns

      Staffan de Mistura voices his shock at the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons on civilian suburbs during effort to break siege”


      lproyect: One guy refers to a “murderously illegal attempt to invade” Syria. Was I missing something? When the USA wants to invade a country, it doesn’t take 5 years.

      So interesting how a fact-phobic, slanderous, amoral propagandist can twist the facts to turn reality on it head. Because there’s been no full-scale U.S. invasion that means there has been no invasion at all? No foreign forces on Syrian soil? No U.S. effort to violently remove the Assad government? Insanely ludicrous argument.

      lproyect: They were murderous mobs that the democratically elected government had to defend a peace-loving population from

      YOUR words. Not any else’s here. Strawman. Stupid. Slanderous.

    • Sibiriak on October 31, 2016, 11:40 pm

      A reasonable person condemns violations of humanitarian law by BOTH sides in this conflict– while keeping the overarching reality of Empire-led aggression in view. A propagandist like lproyect, in contrast, condemns only one side’s violations while parroting the false, fairy-tale narrative being propagated by the Western media, U.S. government etc.

      Journalist Stephen Kinzer:

      Coverage of the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press. Reporting about carnage in the ancient city of Aleppo is the latest reason why.

      For three years, violent militants have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression. They posted notices warning residents: “Don’t send your children to school. If you do, we will get the backpack and you will get the coffin.” Then they destroyed factories, hoping that unemployed workers would have no recourse other than to become fighters. They trucked looted machinery to Turkey and sold it.

      This month, people in Aleppo have finally seen glimmers of hope. The Syrian army and its allies have been pushing militants out of the city. Last week they reclaimed the main power plant. Regular electricity may soon be restored. The militants’ hold on the city could be ending.

      Militants, true to form, are wreaking havoc as they are pushed out of the city by Russian and Syrian Army forces. “Turkish-Saudi backed ‘moderate rebels’ showered the residential neighborhoods of Aleppo with unguided rockets and gas jars,” one Aleppo resident wrote on social media. The Beirut-based analyst Marwa Osma asked, “The Syrian Arab Army, which is led by President Bashar Assad, is the only force on the ground, along with their allies, who are fighting ISIS — so you want to weaken the only system that is fighting ISIS?”

      This does not fit with Washington’s narrative. As a result, much of the American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening. Many news reports suggest that Aleppo has been a “liberated zone” for three years but is now being pulled back into misery.

      Americans are being told that the virtuous course in Syria is to fight the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian partners. We are supposed to hope that a righteous coalition of Americans, Turks, Saudis, Kurds, and the “moderate opposition” will win.

      This is convoluted nonsense, but Americans cannot be blamed for believing it. We have almost no real information about the combatants, their goals, or their tactics. Much blame for this lies with our media.


      And much blame lies with shameless propagandists such as lproyect.

      • lproyect on November 1, 2016, 10:56 am

        Stephen Kinzer and Jeffrey Sachs: latest recruits to the Baathist amen corner:

      • Keith on November 1, 2016, 11:29 am

        SIBIRIAK- “And much blame lies with shameless propagandists such as lproyect.”

        Indeed, Louis pops up from time to time to confirm his bonafides as an ossified Marxist for empire. Since he just repeats himself, he feels no need to account for the empire’s ongoing offensive to break up the Middle East long in the planning and obvious in the implementation. Obviously, he highly values his specialized social niche, intellectual integrity of no concern.

  12. lproyect on October 31, 2016, 11:03 pm

    No foreign forces on Syrian soil?


    Afghan migrants offered $500 by Iran to fight for Syrian regime

    Iran has been accused of recruiting and sending Afghanistan’s Shia Muslims to fight alongside the Assad regime in war-torn Syria. Afghan migrants say they are being trained and deployed by the country’s notorious Revolutionary Guards.

    Iranian, Afghan and international media outlets have reported on this influx of Afghan migrants to Syria for several months. Several have also published photos of funeral processions of Afghan Shia “martyrs” in different cities across Iran: from Qom, to Mashhad, and Isfahan, the men are buried in ceremonies that are reportedly attended by local Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders.

    FRANCE 24 has spoken to one Observer who accuses Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of offering incentives to Afghan migrants based in the country to encourage them to fight for the Syrian regime. Afghan politicians have reportedly condemned the allegations, accusing Iran of exploiting the poverty of a migrant population that numbers some four million. Afghan authorities and the country’s embassy in Tehran are promising to investigate.

    Two of our Observers based in Afghanistan told FRANCE 24 they can corroborate these reports, saying the deployment of young Afghan Shia fighters is “no secret.”


  13. Sibiriak on October 31, 2016, 11:11 pm

    Amnesty International 31 October 2016:

    The fierce offensive on western Aleppo city launched by armed opposition groups on 28 October has been marked by indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas that cannot be justified as a way to break the relentless siege that has sparked a humanitarian crisis in eastern Aleppo, Amnesty International said.


    Armed opposition groups have displayed a shocking disregard for civilian lives. Video footage shows they have used imprecise explosive weapons including mortars and Katyusha rockets, whose use in the vicinity of densely populated civilian areas flagrantly violates international humanitarian law. Armed opposition groups must end all attacks that fail to distinguish between military targets and civilians.”

    On 30 October an alleged “toxic gas” attack took place in al-Hamdaniyeh and al-Assad areas of western Aleppo causing dozens of injuries according to the Syrian state news agency SANA.

    “Chemical weapons are internationally banned and their use is a war crime. Such weapons cause immense suffering and health damage. Their use can never be justified and regardless of who is behind this attack all parties to the conflict must halt the use of all prohibited weapons of war,” said Samah Hadid. [emphasis added]

  14. gamal on November 1, 2016, 8:14 am

    a book you can read for free,

    “ I am Syrian… living in Syria in the middle of everything. We have seen horrors. It was never a revolution nor a civil war. The terrorists are sent by your goverment. They are al Qaeda Jabhat al Nusra Wahhabi Salafists Talibans etc and the extremist jihadists sent by the West, the Saudis, Qatar and Turkey. Your Obama and whoever is behind him or above him are supporting al Qaeda and leading a proxy war on my country.

    We thought you are against al Qaeda and now you support them.

    The majority here loves Assad. He has never committed a crime against his own people… The chemical attack was staged by the terrorists helped by the USA and the UK, etc. Everyone knows that here.

    American soldiers and people should not be supporting barbarian al Qaeda terrorists who are killing Christians, Muslims in my country and everyone.

    Every massacre is committed by them. We were all happy in Syria: we had free school and university education available for everyone, free healthcare, no GMO, no fluoride, no chemtrails, no Rothschild IMF- controlled bank, state owned central bank which gives 11% interest, we are self-sufficient and have no foreign debt to any country or bank.

    Life before the crisis was so beautiful here. Now it is hard and horrific in some regions.

    I do not understand how the good and brave American people can accept to bomb my country which has never harmed them and therefore help the barbarian al Qaeda. These animals slit throats and behead for pleasure… they behead babies and rape young kids.

    They are satanic. Our military helped by the millions of civilian militias are winning the battle against al Qaeda. But now the USA wants to bomb the shit out of us so that al Qaeda can get the upper hand.

    Please help us American people. They are destroying the cradle of civilization. Stop your government.”

    mark taliano

    Syria’s war for humanity

  15. lproyect on November 1, 2016, 10:55 am

    no Rothschild IMF- controlled bank

    Funny how these anti-Semitic tropes keep showing up here.

  16. Keith on November 1, 2016, 11:40 am

    Let me add that in my opinion a form of no fly zone is possible. Calling what occurred in Libya a “no fly zone” is incorrect. Libya was a NATO fly zone. Both sides have sufficient anti-aircraft capability to implement a nobody flies zone, which would hurt Syria more that the NATO proxy Islamists. Risky? You bet. But Hillary and her fellow neocons are nothing if not risk takers.

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