As Syria has descended into all-out civil war, much of the worsening slaughter has been attributable to aerial bombardments of urban neighborhoods that President Bashar Assad’s opponents control, with such attacks causing especially high casualties in recent weeks in the ancient city of Aleppo. Can anything be done to stop the killing? There are many good reasons not to intervene militarily. For one thing, it would be impossible to do so under the auspices of the United Nations, owing to Russian and Chinese obstructionism in the Security Council. There is also America’s understandable reluctance to become involved in yet another war in a Muslim country, as well as the impossibility of knowing what kind of regime might emerge if and when Assad is overthrown.
Yet it also seems impossible to stand by while the daily bloodbath continues. The situation in Syria feels more and more like what we witnessed in Bosnia 20 years ago. Then, as now, the international community’s main response for an extended period was to provide humanitarian assistance to the conflict’s growing number of victims. Thanks to satellite television, the world had a front-row seat to watch the citizens of Sarajevo, who were kept alive by U.N. food deliveries, being killed by shelling and sniping from the surrounding hills. Today, the U.N. is delivering an increasing amount of assistance to Syrian refugees who have managed to escape to neighboring countries, while those who have not are being slaughtered.
As with Syria now, Russian support for the Serbian side two decades ago was one of the factors that prevented military intervention. But it was by no means the only obstacle. The U.S. presidential election in 1992 made George H. W. Bush’s administration reluctant to use military force. Other political factors deterred the United Kingdom and France – and Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton – from intervening until another three years of killing had taken place.
While military intervention in Syria may be impossible, imposing a no-fly zone is not. To be sure, a no-fly zone over Syria would not be a simple undertaking: Substantial resources would be required, and, given the regime’s military capabilities, it would not be a risk-free operation. Yet it was accomplished for more than a decade in Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein from attacking segments of his own population, so we know that it can be done in Syria as well.
Of course, someone – presumably Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia – is supplying the Syrian opposition with weapons. Yet, as long as Assad’s forces can attack opposition-controlled neighborhoods with helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes, the opposition’s ability to overthrow the regime with the arms that are now available to it seems questionable. What is more certain is that the presence of armed fighters in a neighborhood provokes aerial attacks that destroy civilian infrastructure and maim and kill those residents who have not fled.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a valiant effort to negotiate a peace settlement when there still seemed to be a remote chance of success. Since then, the sharp rise in bloodshed has made it increasingly unlikely, or even impossible, that Assad’s opponents would consent to any arrangement that kept him in power. At the same time, Assad’s loyalists, especially members of the minority Alawite sect, must fear that they would be massacred if his regime fell.
At some point, the international community may have to intervene to prevent or mitigate such a massacre. Its credibility in doing so, and therefore its likelihood of success, would be far greater if it were to intervene now to establish a no-fly zone to protect civilians in the opposition neighborhoods of Syria’s cities.
Because Russian and Chinese intransigence precludes the U.N. from establishing a no-fly zone, the Arab League and NATO should jointly take the lead. And, while the participation of the U.S., which has by far the greatest logistical capacity, is essential, it should not be in the forefront. As in the case of Libya, this would be an excellent opportunity to “lead from behind.”
A no-fly zone is by no means a solution to the conflict in Syria. But it would be a modest step in the direction of reducing the great harm being done. A more comprehensive approach, if one could be found, would be far preferable. Until then, it seems well worth pursuing efforts that would help to abate the carnage.
Aryeh Neier, the president of the Open Society Institute and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of “Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).