The West is stepping up their pressure on President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Humanitarian concerns including the alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people and the current”no-end-in-sight” scenario have made the United States and the European Union look for alternatives to diplomacy and sanctions. President Obama has reportedly asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Syria which would be enforced by NATO.


A NFZ was used most recently in Libya in order to protect civilians from violence during the uprising against former dictator Muammar Qaddaffi and previously in Iraq and Bosnia. In both Bosnia and Libya a NFZ was the result of a resolution of the UN Security Council.

Pros and Cons


Proponents of a NFZ in Syria look to the example set by the success of the mission in Libya where it helped the opposition topple the Qaddaffi regime.

According to Amnesty the Syrian regime began resorting to air bombardments as a strategy in August 2012. Since then air strikes have increased and have been systematically focused on towns under opposition control. The attacks have seldom targeted opposition forces’ positions and have instead struck residential areas, killing civilians not involved in the conflict and raising calls for the international community’s responsibility to protect the Syrian people. Further, a NFZ would impair the regime’s current air superiority and might also be used as leverage when negotiating with President Assad.


Sceptics such as US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey warn that Syria is not Libya; while Libya’s air defence systems were substandard Syria’s are much better developed. According to US Senator John McCain who is a proponent of a NFZ a realistic plan “would include hundreds of planes, and would be most effective if it included destroying Syrian airplanes on runways.” Thus, it would require an aggressive operation and the alleged presence of Russian anti-air missiles only increases the dangers of imposing a NFZ. Additionally, there is no clear consensus either within the EU or between it and Washington of what an end result ought to look like and what a NFZ should entail; whether it is used as a deterrent or as a prelude to other military operations. Furthermore, with Russia averse to helping or arming the opposition, the UNSC is unlikely to support a resolution calling for a NFZ in Syria.

Apart from the natural risk of casualties in any military mission Dempsey warns of Syrian actions outside its borders, be it asymmetric attacks against or the launching of long range missiles against neighbours such as Turkey and Israel.

International Context

Two green fighter jets
© jelwolf / Fotolia

Currently, most analysts believe that both the end of the EU arms-embargo and the threat of a NFZ are mechanisms used to put pressure on the Syrian regime in possible peace negotiations. However, if peace negotiations come to naught and a NFZ is authorised it would include not only the US, the UK and France but other key regional players such as Turkey and Jordan; if a NFZ is established the US is likely to place Patriot missiles in Turkey and use bases in Jordan for search-and-rescue missions. The Arab League is supportive of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian National Council has called for a NFZ to be installed in northern Syria. International involvement is therefore unlikely to be viewed as western interventionism.

Turkey has called for a NFZ in Syria but has affirmed that it is up to the UNSC to decide whether to establish a NFZ. Russia on the other hand is calling ideas of humanitarian corridors and a NFZ “destructive” but agrees that a NFZ can only be approved by the UNSC.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council lifted its arms embargo last week but has not yet voted or spoken out regarding a NFZ. However, theEuropean Council recognises the SNC as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people and France, the UK, and Denmark recognise the SNC as “sole legitimate representative” and individual MEPs have repeatedly called for a NFZ.

Further reading

Lessons from Iraq and Bosnia on the Theory and Practice of No-fly Zones

No-Fly Zones: Strategic, Operational, and Legal Considerations for Congress