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10/31/16

Middle East - Syria: Will a No-Fly Zone Help the People of Aleppo?

Media coverage has recently been saturated with distressing scenes showing the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, where aerial bombardment has led to a heavy loss of civilian life. The severity of the crisis instinctively makes us want to help – scores of protesters gathered outside the seat of the British prime minister on Saturday holding signs calling on the government to “Save Aleppo” and impose a “No-Bomb Zone Now”. While the anger is understandable, the way it is being channeled reflects a circumscribed policy debate – there are other options than a No-Fly Zone, which should be avoided as it would harm rather than help efforts to alleviate the suffering of Syrian civilians.

In any area of policy, the mainstream debate revolves around policy alternatives that reflect establishment divisions. For example, in economics, ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberalism, at least there wasn’t until Keynesianism was rediscovered by some elites after the 2008 crisis. The debate over what is to be done over Syria revolves around two policy alternatives: the hawks, including likely next U.S. president, Hillary Clinton, advocate a NFZ and the doves, including the current U.S. administration, maintain that the sanctions regime should be increased. This effectively reflects a division within the establishment on how to proceed. Serious policy alternatives are not discussed. In particular, discussion of increasing aid and support to refugees, surely the most obvious way of directly helping civilians in Syria, and what the UN has called on industrialized countries to do, is curious by its absence.

This circumscribed debate does not logically follow from its supposed pretext – stopping civilian loss of life. In fact, a NFZ is a policy that would unavoidably lead to civilians dying. Enforcing a NFZ means destroying air defenses, which are located to defend cities – i.e. they are located in areas where there are many civilians. Even the flagbearer for the hawks, Hillary Clinton, has admitted privately that with a No-Fly Zone “you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians”; such intervention will “take a lot of civilians”. This realization would seem inconsistent with the often-used humanitarian pretext, but it makes sense given Hillary Clinton’s recent admission that her top priority in Syria is removing Syrian President Assad.

There is a clear parallel with the imposition of a NFZ in Libya, which prolonged the conflict and worsened the situation for civilians. NATO bombing directly led to scores of civilian deaths and facilitated the overthrow of the regime by rebel militias that have killed, and are continuing to kill, thousands. Particularly repugnant was the ethnic cleansing of black people, including through public lynching. In a 2013 paper, Alan Kuperman, a Harvard academic, argued that NATO intervention extended the war by a factor of 6 and increased the death toll 7 to 10 times; given that Libya is now a failed state, torn apart by warlords, we can safely say that these estimates were too conservative. President Obama privately calls the situation in Libya a “shit show”. Only last month a report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament found that the humanitarian justification was an insufficient pretext and based on falsehoods, the supposedly limited intervention led “ineluctably” to regime change, and that the (British) government, and by implication other participating Western powers, did not seriously consider diplomatic alternatives to military action.

Regardless, the mantra of Western foreign policy is “it will be different this time” – unlike all recent Western military interventions this one will be limited, successful and won’t leave a worse humanitarian situation in its wake. Although, if the dire humanitarian situation in Aleppo necessitates immediate action, then why are there not equally loud calls for action for civilians facing similar situations? U.S. bombing in Manbij and Kobane in Syria and Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and flattened entire neighbourhoods; more than a third of US and UK backed Saudi airstrikes in Yemen have hit civilian sites, including schools, hospitals, weddings and funerals.

The U.S. and its allies want to remove Syria from Russia’s orbit, so therefore the dictator there must go, but airstrikes to support the dictator in Yemen are fine, because the dictator there is a friend of close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

Read more: Will a No-Fly Zone Help the People of Aleppo?

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