The Reckoning

No-Fly Time in Syria

Syrian rebels injured in air strike

Syrian rebels help a wounded comrade who survived a Syrian army strike outside a hospital in the northern city of Aleppo on September 18. NATO was nowhere to be seen.

Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/GettyImages

Eleven months of civil war.

That’s a debatable judgment, depending on where, exactly, one draws the line between the regime’s brutal repression of Syrian pro-democracy protesters and the bloodthirsty onslaught against civilians that followed.

But it struck me recently that it was at about this point in 1992 that NATO finally established a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Hercegovina, about 11 months after the event now recognized as the start of that war, a mortar attack on Sarajevo that killed 16 shoppers in a Muslim neighborhood.

Remember, after 11 months of ethnic cleansing – not a bad term for what the Assad regime is currently attempting on the unmeltable ethnic pot that is Syria – Bosnia’s darkest days were most definitely ahead.

Concentration camps, like the one exposed by The Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy at Omarska, were already known to exist.

But the massacres at Srebrenica, the destruction of the ancient bridge of Mostar, the killing thousands in the siege of Sarajevo by snipers and artillery barrage, and the score settling murders and rapes and other atrocities committed by all three sides all over the land continued for three more years before the dictators bluff was finally called.

Why should we care about Syria? Well, that’s a post for a less intelligent audience, I hope. And while I frequently make the case that the U.S. should be scaling back its military commitments around the globe, there is penny wise and there’s pound-foolish. The time to impose a no-fly zone is now.

Remember, the question is Syria is not a purely military one, it’s about momentum. If the outside world remains outside, Assad’s well-armed regime, fearing reprisals, has a good chance of wearing down resistance and restoring its reign of terror. But dictators, at least in recent history, don’t survive no-fly zones – whether or not they ever truly tip the battlefield balance.

The alternative is grim. Allowing Syria’s chaos to continue will damage too many strategic American interests and, perhaps more importantly, squander an opportunity to affect precisely the kind of change that will make the world a safer place as America’s ability to “police it” inevitably fades.

Ironically, my post of two days ago – in effect, an argument to deputize Turkey as the leader of a more forceful intervention in Syria (and the Mideast generally) – was outdated within a day. Turkey doesn’t need Washington’s blessing: it got Assad’s instead, via an artillery attack that killed several Turkish civilians.

But the basic US policy reactions I sketched out remain relevant:

·       Coordinate with Turkey to recognize a Syrian government in exile;

·       Create a NATO peacekeeping force in waiting with a Turkish general in command;

·       help arm the Syrian opposition against a brutal government that is filling refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon with traumatized people. 

And, now, impose a no fly zone run from the NATO base at Incirlik, Turkey, not far from the site of the Syrian artillery attack.

The counter arguments at this point are

a)    Oh, no, that will look like “Wag the Dog!”

As an argument, that’s as specious as the GOP’s invocation of it in 1999 over Kosovo. And even Kosovo, a pretty clean win for the good guys, couldn’t save the Gore campaign from Ralph Nader and Florida’s electoral incompetence. A real president doesn’t worry about this stuff. And anyway, if he really wanted to play that game, he’d attack Iran, not Syria. To date, neither Romney nor Obama endorses a no-fly zone. Obama should do what a president is supposed to do: lead public opinion rather than react to it.

b)   We can’t afford an expensive air deployment right now.

Actually, we’ve got three carrier strike forces in the Persian Gulf for the first time in decades because of the risk of an Israeli-Iranian clash. So they’re in place, and in spite of the conventional wisdom about Syria’s air force, it’s little more formidable that Saddam’s. In effect, a two day problem and (for the real penny pinchers) “monetizing” the current deployment of our naval assets.  Meanwhile, Turkey’s interests here align perfectly with our own if ground forces become an issue.

c)    We can’t be sure what will follow a collapse of the Assad regime.

No, but we can be sure what follows his survival. A bolstering of Iran, its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, a message to Iraq’s Shia leaders that the US has lost its resolve, and unwelcomed new fuel for Israeli paranoia. Additionally, if we wait any longer, our desperately desired help will be displaced by the very real money and arms being channeled into the country by Saudi and Gulf sources. Anyone remember how that turned out in Pakistan or Afghanistan?

Besides, we’ve been here before in Bosnia. For those who were not in Bosnia, as I was on and off in those days, or were too young to remember the unbelievable indecisiveness of the West as the dictatorial Slobodan Milosevic bluffed and murdered and kept it at bay, let’s review:

Perhaps the most disgraceful moment in the history of the ever overrated European Union was its “hand-tied-behind-the-back” UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia it ran between 1992 and 1995, a mission that literally provided cover for ethnic murder, rape and ethnic cleansing, and an excuse for the US to look away.

Not that the US gets a pass.

The first George Bush wanted nothing to do with Bosnia – “no dog in that fight” a senior Bushie, ever mindful of the need to bolster the boss’ shaky Texas credentials, quoted the president as saying.

Clinton, arriving in early 1993 to a mission in Somalia launched during Bush’s lame duck period, was a deer in the headlights. Somalia went south, the Rwanda genocide in 1994 shook the world to its core. Clinton today says he regrets not getting involved to stop Rwanda’s genocide more than any other failure of his tenure. Yet on his hands he sat for three more years before ordering air strikes on Serb artillery and snipers who rained death down daily upon Sarajevo’s Muslims.

So, we’ve reached 11 months in Syria. Back in early 1993, we imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia and then sat on our hands. This time, we should impose a no-fly zone and follow up with aid to rebels and beseiged civilians, threats of escalation if the regime does not back down, the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal for Syria, and a green light to the Turks to take a chunk out of northern Syria so that refugees can be held safely on their own native soil. The Russians are bluffing, the UN playing the EU’s role in Bosnia - time to let the world know that we see that.

Let’s hope Bosnia is not the template here. Whatever one thinks of Bush pere’s judgement of Bosnia all those years ago, we have many dogs in Syria’s fight.