During the third presidential debate, the probable 45th president has confirmed her support for a no fly zone (NFZ) in Syria. Calls for a NFZ are mostly driven by humanitarian reasons. The vivid imagery of Syrian suffering pressures the west to respond and a NFZ is a way for the United States to address this suffering while minimizing risk. The problem is that the NFZ is a policy proposal that doesn’t match the facts on the ground and will most probably result in mission creep.
Mission creep is the tendency of small scale interventions to incrementally expand into more ambitious projects. The term was originally coined by Jim Hoagland when describing US involvement in Somalia. What started off as a humanitarian mission in a failed state was modified into a police action against a local warlord. The consequence was the death of 18 American soldiers and approximately 200 Somalis.
How does this apply to a NFZ in Syria? A NFZ would fail to properly address the civilian casualties in Syria and would lead to a demand for either a safe zone or result in a dent in American credibility. A NFZ is just what it says. It’s airspace that is patrolled by the west to prevent belligerent parties from entering with their aircraft. Note that a NFZ is conceptually different from a safe zone as a NFZ does not address conflict on the ground. Because the demand for a no fly zone is driven by concerns over civilian casualties, it’s important that a NFZ properly address the cause of these causalities. Unfortunately a NFZ in Syria does not and this is confirmed by the data.
Finding reliable and current casualty rates of Syrian civilians is difficult to attain. Finding how they were killed is even more difficult. Violations Documentation Center (VDC) is the only source I know of that produces data on the number and method of civilian casualties but they do not publish regularly. In September of 2015 the NYT published VDC data which noted that of the 85,404 civilians casualties they were able to record, approximately a fifth were from Syrian aerial bombings. Their most current report is part of their monthly series (which is also not published regularly) which reports that for August 2016, 39 percent of the 1,737 civilians deaths were from aerial or barrel bomb attacks. An increase but most probable from the involvement of Russia and I would assume that most of these deaths are in Aleppo which would not be included in any proposed NFZ.
What does this have to do with mission creep? Everything as the policy prescription does not match the reality on the ground. As noted, most civilian casualties of the Syrian conflict are not the result of aerial bombardments but from sources other than Russian and Syrian aircraft. Additionally, most aerial attacks are in areas that would never be plausibly included in a NFZ. But even if a NFZ were to reduce civilian deaths from Syrian and Russian aircraft, overall civilian casualties may not significantly drop as the Syrian government could substitute tactics and rely less on aerial attacks and more on mortar and artillery. What is to stop renewed demands to address the civilian casualties that continue after the NFZ is erected? What do we expect the US response to be to ground conflict between the multiple belligerents occurring inside the NFZ? What would happen if a Russian aircraft entered into the NFZ? These are all questions that have not been discussed at this point and all are plausibly answered by some form of mission creep. A NFZ only serves to deepen the United States into a conflict by way of an inappropriate policy. It is deeply unfortunate but the truth is Syria has no strategic or economic (oil) value to justify American use of force in the area. If the aim of the NFZ is to save Syrian civilians, the most obvious solution would be to have some sort policy which allows for the resettlement of refugees. Such a policy would be politically difficult, especially in the age of heightened demographic anxiety, but would directly address the tragedy of civilians being caught in the middle of a civil war.