In the midst of the chaotic 2016 U.S. presidential election, the massive failure of U.S. foreign policy to overthrow the Syrian government has forced both Republicans and Democrats to reassess the U.S. role in the conflict in Syria. Already in its sixth year, the conflict has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced 11 million people — nearly half the Syrian population.
Up to this point, the U.S. has carried out airstrike campaigns and funded, armed and trained various anti-government groups. More direct intervention has been on the table for a long time now. The widely proposed “no-fly zone,” an act of aggression that would lead to direct military intervention, demonstrates that the U.S. and NATO are clearly not interested in peace.
A no-fly zone (otherwise known as a “no-bomb zone” or “safe zone”) is territory over which the U.S. and its NATO allies would not permit other military aircraft to fly. Those powers would force other planes to land, shoot down aircraft and bomb airports preemptively. Prominent supporters of a no-fly zone in Syria include Hillary Clinton, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson.
During the Oct. 19 presidential debate, Clinton said, “I think a no-fly zone could save lives and could hasten the end of the conflict.” (New York Times, Oct. 20)
Despite their posturing, politicians and military leaders alike have no illusions about the aggression that a no-fly zone entails. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “for us to control all of the airspace in Syria it would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia.” (theguardian.com, Oct. 25)
History of no-fly zones
Instead of taking the words of the politicians and pundits at face value, it’s crucial to look at the historical precedent for no-fly zones. They have been implemented three times: Iraq in 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993 and Libya in 2011.
At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, a no-fly zone was imposed on Iraq by the United States, France and Turkey. It was enforced up to the U.S.-British invasion in 2003, which ultimately led to regime change, the decimation of Iraq’s infrastructure, at least half a million deaths and millions of refugees. But even before 2003, more than 1,400 Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. and British bombs dropped to enforce the no-fly zones.
Just a year after the first no-fly zone in Iraq was put in place, following the separation of Bosnia from Yugoslavia in 1992, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution calling for a no-fly zone in Bosnia-Herzegovina; it was enforced by NATO. Following the declaration of the no-fly zone came a 15-day bombing campaign, along with British and French shelling of Bosnian Serbs. The fighting that started then eventually led to the destruction and dismemberment of Yugoslavia after the 1999 NATO aggression.
In 2011, the U.N Security Council passed a resolution that allowed NATO and its Gulf allies to impose a no-fly zone in Libya. While the Libyan government took part in the ceasefire, NATO began its bombing campaign and support for anti-government elements, ripping apart the country and overthrowing the sovereign government.
The no-fly zone was only ever selectively enforced, with NATO dropping supplies and arms to anti-government forces under the guise of “humanitarian aid.” Libya has gone from one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, boasting the highest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality rate, to a haven for sectarian militias and paramilitary groups.
Over a million Libyan citizens have been internally displaced, over a dozen journalists have been murdered, and the political sphere in Libya today is characterized by constant military conflict.
U.S. priority: Regime change in Syria
Those who support a no-fly zone in Syria must own up to the history of previous no-fly zones: three regime changes and three destroyed countries.
Although a no-fly zone may be promoted as a moderate solution to deescalate the ongoing conflict in Syria, historical precedent suggests anything but. No-fly zones have to be enforced somehow, and this will require anti-aircraft technology and an estimated 70,000 troops on the ground, according to the Pentagon. (New York Times, Oct. 22, 2013)
If the U.S. State Department were interested in promoting peace in Syria, it would never even consider an act of aggression like a no-fly zone. But based on the U.S.’s historical involvement in Syria, it’s clear that the U.S. has no interest in peace.
The U.S. has been interested in controlling Syria for decades, with consecutive CIA-backed coup attempts in 1956 and 1957. Since 1967, because of the Ba’athist government’s support for Palestinian and Lebanese resistance to Israeli aggression, the U.S. has kept Syria under close scrutiny. The U.S. government explicitly expressed desire for regime change in 1996 and again following 9/11.
Given Washington’s longstanding desires in the region, the 2011 “Arab Spring” protests were seen as a convenient opportunity for swift regime change. The anti-government movement has been thoroughly corrupted by Salafist military groups like the Islamic State group (IS) and al-Nusra (an al-Qaida offshoot in Syria), and foreign involvement has only worsened the situation.
The Obama administration again pressed toward intervention in 2013 with accusations that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on civilians, but a U.N. Mission Report later determined that the chemicals had instead been used by anti-government forces. When the United States government is dedicated to undermining a sovereign government, it will grasp at anything to construct narratives that delegitimize its target.
Terrorism: a tool to subvert Syrian gov’t
The material involvement of the United States in the conflict has been overwhelmingly consistent with its strategic aim of undermining the Syrian government. A 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency declassified document indicates that the CIA knowingly facilitated the rise of IS to destabilize the region.
The U.S. government’s plan to support “moderate” anti-government forces has boomeranged. Fighting even broke out between CIA-armed and Pentagon-armed proxies, according to a report in the March 26, 2013, Chicago Tribune.
Washington has funded fighters who consistently join the ranks of al-Qaida or IS, it airdrops or sells weapons that wind up in the hands of IS, and it targets the Syrian army in airstrikes. The U.S. government has made its priorities clear: It values the destruction of Syria over civilian lives.
Russia’s successful assistance to the Syrian Army in fighting groups like al-Nusra and IS forced the U.S. in September to consider coordinating with Russia. But then the Pentagon targeted Syrian government positions, killed 80 Syrian soldiers and broke up the coordination.
U.S. proxy forces are all linked to al-Nusra, which sabotages U.S.-Russia cooperation. With the U.S. plan to establish a “moderate” opposition to carry out regime change failing, Washington gets more desperate and reckless. Unwilling to coordinate with Russia, the U.S. government is considering the aggressive no-fly zone strategy as a last-ditch effort.
Encirclement of Russia
It must be emphasized that U.S. aggression in Syria cannot be separated from its general interests in the region. U.S. involvement in Syria must not be viewed in isolation, but rather as a front in its geopolitical war targeting Russia and China. Between CIA support for the Nazi-infested, right-wing coup in Kiev, Ukraine, to the covert funding of Salafist paramilitary groups in Syria, the United States is slowly but surely encircling Russia.
NATO has begun to increase its military presence, including troops and tanks, in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. NATO has also bolstered its forces elsewhere in Eastern Europe and conducted unusually aggressive military exercises in Poland.
While the U.S. quietly closes in on Russia’s borders, anti-Russian war propaganda and fear mongering have grown louder by the day. China and Russia have been deemed threats to U.S. national security; the Democratic Party has gone so far as to accuse Russia of leaking hacked information about the Democratic National Committee.
Given Russia’s air support on the side of the Syrian Army, the situation is quite sensitive. Within the Syrian “civil” war lies a precarious proxy war by the U.S./NATO targeting Russia. The imposition of a no-fly zone on the part of the U.S./NATO is a sure way to escalate to a full-scale intervention in Syria and possibly a direct war with Russia. Now more than ever, it’s crucial for the anti-war movement to call for NATO’s exit from Syria.
This guest contributor to workers.org is an anti-war activist involved in the student movement.