Secretary Clinton has stated several times that she would consider, if elected President, a no fly zone (NFZ) over Syria and has implied this would be part of a humanitarian assistance strategy to bring relief to the citizens of Aleppo. At the last two debates she specifically referenced Omar Daqneesh, the shell shocked 5 year old Syrian boy filmed sitting in the back in an ambulance in August as a reason to not allow the status quo of Russian and Syrian air strikes on civilian population areas to go on. This has not always been Clinton’s position, in 2013 she expressed concern that a no fly zone would kill a lot of Syrians. Secretary Clinton’s change in position, or at least a stated willingness to change her position, has not been met with universal acclaim. Many Democrats, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others have expressed concerns that a no fly zone would not save lives. Others have argued that it could start World War III featuring the US vs Russia.
Since this has now been put forward as a possible change in US policy and strategy it is important to take a few minutes and consider exactly what a no fly zone really is, how such a choice fits within the US’s strategy formulation framework, and whether it is feasible, acceptable, and suitable.
In terms of US military concepts and doctrine the phrase “no fly zone” is not a doctrinal term. The closest doctrinal term is no fly area (NOFLY) and is defined in Joint Publication (JP) 3-52/Joint Airspace Control as:
Airspace of specific dimensions set aside for a specific purpose in which no aircraft operations are permitted, except as authorized by the appropriate commander and controlling agency.
…a no-fly zone can be defined as a policy under which an outside actor overtly prohibits some or all aircraft flight over a specified territory and undertakes to intercept aircraft violating the prohibition or otherwise punish those responsible for violations.3 Several features of this definition are worth noting. First, an NFZ thus defined does not include defending the sovereignty of one’s own airspace or that of an allied state with the ally’s consent. In a sense, it can be said that virtually every country has an NFZ of some sort over its own territory, often prohibiting all flights in particularly sensitive airspace, but these are not of interest here. Second, an NFZ is a declaratory policy under which one expects violators to be aware of the line they are crossing. Third, imposing an NFZ worthy of the name entails enforcing it, not merely complaining about those who violate it; normally, this means intercepting aircraft that defy the ban, though an NFZ could also employ an enforcement mechanism that relies on other, less-direct forms of sanction.4
He posits that no fly zones are often attractive policy options because:
Since the end of the Cold War, “no-fly zones” (NFZs)1 have begun to appear on menus of policy options for dealing with troublesome states. Prohibiting a miscreant government from using airpower for warfare or transportation within its own country may appeal to policymakers, primarily because it is perhaps the most limited way that military force can be used as a punitive tool. Compared to other forms of armed intervention, NFZs typically entail relatively little risk to the powers imposing them, as least when directed against militarily weak targets. Yet, because they are an active use of military power, NFZs tend to seem more assertive than policy instruments such as economic sanctions.
Due to their limited nature, no-fly zones may also be relatively easy policy initiatives for international coalitions to agree on when they are keen to act against a target regime but wary of taking large risks or committing themselves to major military action. This was very much the case in early 2011, following uprisings against Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and the Libyan government’s subsequent crackdown against its internal opponents. With a rising sense that the international community needed to do something to help the rebels, first the Gulf Cooperation Council, then the Arab League, and finally the United Nations voted to support the imposition of a NFZ over Libya, from which grew the 2011 air campaign against Qaddafi that enabled the Libyan opposition to defeat his regime and remove him from power (Operation Odyssey Dawn [OOD] and Operation Unified Protector [OUP]).
While this doctrinal and definitional discussion is interesting, the seeming reason behind Secretary Clinton’s willingness to revisit adjusting US policy to include a no fly zone is the result of humanitarian concerns. One of the reasons for this seems to be the failure of the recent cease-fire, which even when it was in effect, failed to allow for humanitarian assistance to reach the people of Aleppo. Its failure also seems to have taken the wind out of the sails (if I may mix my Service metaphors) of the announced US-Russian Joint Deconfliction Office to coordinate strikes and deconflict operations against ISIL and the Nusra Front in Syria. Part of the consideration, viewed solely through public statements and the news reporting on her changed position, is that diplomacy, including MIL to MIL (military to military) diplomacy has failed to end air strikes on non combatant civilian populations in Syria, specifically Aleppo, and as a result a greater humanitarian disaster has ensued. As a result the most effective way to break the impasse, prevent air strikes on civilian population centers, and get much needed humanitarian assistance to those civilian populations is to have the US led coalition deny flight to the Russians and the Syrians.