A No-Fly Zone Doesn’t Mean a No-War Zone

And the politicians and pundits calling for one in Syria ought to remember how toothless and ineffective the U.S. air patrols were — for 12 long years — in Iraq.

American airforce F-15 C fighters flying over a Kuwaiti oilfield which had been torched by retreating Iraqi troops during the Gulf War.   (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
American airforce F-15 C fighters flying over a Kuwaiti oilfield which had been torched by retreating Iraqi troops during the Gulf War. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Amid all the horrific imagery of Syrian civilians killed by indiscriminate Syrian and Russian airpower, U.S. politicians and policy analysts are again calling for a deeper military involvement in Syria’s civil war. The appeals have centered around one unilateral military tactic: a no-fly zone (NFZ) to be imposed over certain portions of Syria to prevent certain aircraft from flying there. I have researched and written about NFZs for 15 years, and analyzed some of the proposals that have been made for Syria, and I won’t rehearse all of my conclusions here.

I do, however, want to make readers aware of some of the complexities and trade-offs inherent in no-fly zones by re-evaluating two events involving the northern Iraqi NFZ that was imposed above the 36th parallel between April 1991 and March 2003. The Iraqi northern NFZ is particularly relevant as Syria intervention proponents routinely mention it (though never the southern Iraqi NFZ imposed below the 33rd parallel) to bolster their argument for a NFZ over portions of Syria. The shorthand recollection of the dozen-year operation is that the George H. W. Bush administration imposed a NFZ “to protect the Kurds.”

There is a critical and forgotten preamble to this story that intervention proponents never discuss. On Feb. 15, 1991, long before the first NFZ was ever enforced, President George H.W. Bush repeatedly called — via a message beamed into every Iraqi media outlet — upon “the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Leaflets were dropped upon Iraqi soldiers and civilians rallying them to “fill the streets and alleys and bring down Saddam Hussein and his aides.”

Kurdish rebels soon revolted against Iraqi troops and Baath Party officials, detaining whom they could and massacring resisters. Using helicopters, artillery, and armored ground forces, Saddam’s Republican Guards brutally counterattacked the uprising, killing 20,000 Kurds and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Despite having 500,000 U.S. troops and immense military capabilities in-theater, Bush did nothing to assist the Kurdish uprising he had called for, even refusing to provide Kurds with captured Iraqi Army military equipment — much of which was sent to the Mujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan. On April 15, 1991, coalition pilots began flying patrols above the 36th parallel to protect U.S. forces and aid workers providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Kurds. Having incentivized the Kurds to take up arms, Bush turned his back on them, committing later to protect them from just one form of regime lethality.

The second important and rarely remembered event involving the northern Iraqi NFZ actually occurred 20 years ago this week. In 1995 and 1996, State Department officials struggled to broker a cease-fire between Iraq’s two main Kurdish political parties — the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In August 1996, the “tenuous peace” unraveled over disagreements about their division of oil smuggling revenues; the PUK turned to Iran for weapons, logistics, and military advisors, while the KDP appealed to Saddam to intervene on their behalf.

Saddam marshaled two Republican Guard divisions and three regular army divisions of some 40,000 troops, 300 tanks, and 300 artillery pieces. Starting Aug. 20, these Iraqi ground forces (with no Iraqi Air Force support) swept over the 36th parallel into Kurdish Iraq, despite repeated demands by the United States that Saddam pull back, or else “it would be a serious mistake.” The Iraqi divisions began shelling and advancing on the Kurdish capital of Erbil, killing combatants and civilians, while U.S. aircraft enforcing the NFZ circled overhead.

Though the U.S. ground attack aircraft could have easily bombed the Iraqi ground forces — having perfected “tank plinking” five years earlier — the Clinton administration chose to do nothing to protect the people of Erbil and several other Kurdish towns under attack. This was partially because the White House did not want to get involved in what it perceived as a PUK/KDP dispute, but also because the governments of Turkey and Saudi Arabia would not permit U.S. planes flying from its sovereign territory to attack Saddam’s ground forces. Instead of protecting the Kurds, the Clinton administration used Saddam’s offensive into northern Iraq to expand the southern NFZ and launch 44 cruise missiles against Saddam’s integrated air defense system.

What lessons should we take from the actual history of the Iraqi northern NFZ? First, presidents should not call for armed revolutions that the United States will abandon if things turn out badly. External powers should not attempt to steer civil war battlefield outcomes with strategic guidance, funding, or weapons without acknowledging that they are also morally responsible for what happens to those combatants that external powers enable. That would have been a valuable lesson in 1991, and it remains so 25 years later.

Second, protecting civilian populations from one form of lethality — in this case, airpower — may incentivize governments to attack adversaries with other combat arms, like artillery, armor, and infantry. This was certainly the case with Saddam’s brutal counterinsurgency in the early 1990s against Shiite insurgents and civilians in southern Iraq, which again occurred on the ground as U.S. pilots enforcing the NFZ circled overhead. As has been noted repeatedly, a NFZ cannot effectively counter ground-based lethality.

Third, every NFZ that the United States has imposed — whether in Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, or Libya — was expanded to support military and political objectives that had nothing to do with how they were initially justified. Even as early as August 1992, officials in the Bush administration were touting the Iraqi northern and southern NFZs as being intended “to deny him [Saddam] the attribute of sovereignty,” and musing hopefully: “How long do you think he could last within just four parallels?” So even if a U.S.-imposed NFZ over any part of Syria would better enable rebel forces to implement regime change, the United States could not deny that it would be directly responsible for the outcome as well as the aftermath.

Photo credit: MPI/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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