These detractors miss the point, which is that a no-fly zone is only part of the solution. Its purpose is not to resolve the conflict but to prevent escalation, protect innocents and provide leverage to negotiations. In essence, a no-fly zone takes away a single tool of violence — the use of aviation — possessed by the oppressor.
Absent the no-fly zones in Bosnia, the Serbs and Croats would have wrought even more destruction than they did. Absent the no-fly zones in Iraq, one can imagine what Saddam Hussein’s air force would have done to the minority Kurds and Shiites. The situation in Syria is no different. Bashar al-Assad turned his military on his own citizens, and the tactical advantages his air force possesses are decisive. The goal of the United States and its allies would be to lessen the continued descent into a bloodbath that, over the past two-plus years, has claimed more than 70,000 lives, displaced 3.6 million people inside Syria and forced about 1.3 million to seek refuge outside of Syria.
Americans are understandably chastened by the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. We witness the chaos of Libya after the use of air power without a subsequent commitment of ground forces, and we are even more reluctant to engage. Many advocate a pragmatic, “lead from behind” style, arguing that we must now reason with cold-blooded calculus. Such a view misunderstands our options and our ability to influence the situation in Syria.
The logic of the 1990s was that aggressive enforcement of no-fly zones would aid civilians victimized by these conflicts, prevent escalation and, with the threat of air strikes, end the conflicts more quickly. Those are limited objectives, but they are not insignificant.
Admittedly, air power is no panacea. We witnessed its limits during the Kosovo air campaign of 1999. Slobodan Milosevic called NATO’s bluff and didn’t back down after the first days of airstrikes. It is important to acknowledge the distinction between the power to deny or destroy and the power to seize or hold forcibly.