The Middle East’s most pressing crisis has yet to be addressed
By Aaron Magid
Onlookers throughout the world have reason to breathe a sigh of relief after the announcement of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, ending an eight-day exchange of fire that left roughly 160 dead. But within hours, an airstrike that killed 40 Syrians in an Aleppo hospital served as a reminder that the recent flare-up in Gaza was, in numerical terms, a mere sideshow compared to the greatest humanitarian crisis plaguing the Middle East this year – the Syrian civil war.
According to the New York Times, nearly 40,000 Syrians have been slaughtered, with approximately 400,000 refugees fleeing their embattled home country. More Syrians were killed during a single day of war – over 330 on August 23 – than Israelis and Palestinians during the entire recent conflict in Gaza. The international community has an obligation to finally act in this 18-month conflict. In a case such as this there are no good solutions; instead policymakers are left to choose the lesser evil among an array of problematic options. On moral ground, the international community must choose the route that limits casualties most – in this case, a NATO-led No-Fly Zone.
Implementing a No-Fly Zone – essentially demilitarizing the skies to the hostile forces in question, shooting or bringing down any aircraft that violate it – would essentially mirror the policy route taken towards Libya in 2011. As in the Libya case, a No-Fly Zone would tip the scales toward the opposition without incurring the cost of full intervention; indeed, this policy option emerges as ideal middle ground when one considers the essential flaws of other potential choices – maximum involvement, meaning a ground invasion, and minimum involvement, which means continuing to do little at all.
A ground invasion would surely bring an end to Bashar al-Assad’s reign of terror, and orient the Syrian opposition movement towards victory. But if the 2003 invasion of Iraq is any indicator, the use of infantry forces would likely result in mass casualties among both servicemen and Syrian civilians. Reliable experts estimate that over 100,000 Iraqis were killed in the aftermath the American invasion – a body count even higher than Assad’s war has amassed. Furthermore, as the Iraqi example demonstrates, it is much easier to enter into the conflict than leave with a viable long-term solution. Few governments during these difficult economic times are interested in such a protracted occupation.
A second option would be for America to not intervene directly militarily and merely provide diplomatic and humanitarian support for the rebels. This has been the policy of the Obama Administration for the first 18 months of the conflict. Not engaging militarily saves American forces lives, prevents another repeat of the 2003 Iraq war, and is a safer option.
But inaction too is morally problematic. First and foremost, watching the deaths of 40,000 innocent civilians and not acting is ethically repugnant. The number is certainly going to increase without significant international involvement with little end in sight. As the Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel eloquently said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
Choosing a middle ground is not only the most morally-sound option – it’s also good foreign policy. Israel and Turkey, two strong American allies in the region, have witnessed an increase in strikes into their sovereign territories originating from Syria; meanwhile, the refugee crisis is a major problem for Jordan, and violence spillover in Lebanon, which began in August, could destabilize that conflict-prone nation. America needs to act in Syria not only to protect its allies and ensure regional stability – but more importantly, to preempt any mass military action from Israel or Turkey, which could threaten to ignite the region unlike ever before. Analysts have been warning for month that that Turkey’s ambitious prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is itching for war, and a useful excuse could be around the corner. The longer the conflict persists, the more likely that an errant mortar instead of landing in an open field will hit a school full of children. In Israel, months before an election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be forced to respond harshly thereby exacerbating the conflict into a larger regional war – one that could ultimately draw in Hezbollah, or even Iran.
America must recognize that this is a worst-case scenario, but one that can be avoided by action now. Implementing a No Fly Zone would not only serve to preempt an unprecedented regional war; it would bring an end to violence in months, saving the lives of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians. Moreover, as in Libya, in a post-Assad era, the opposition will not forget which nations came to their aid militarily, while others resorted to only diplomatic acts. If America acts, it will have strong leverage over the new Syrian government, a key player in the Arab world. A successful intervention would likely shift the current Syrian alliance with Iran to a more pro-American force similar to President Carter’s strong engagement with Egypt resulting in the 1979 Camp David Accords.
All this is not to say that a No Fly Zone has no drawbacks. Unlike the Libyan military during the recent NATO campaign, the Syrian Air Force is much stronger and has the potential to shoot down American and NATO planes. However, despite the loss, there is little doubt of America’s overall air superiority. Secondly, a no fly zone will not immediately end the conflict. However, neutralizing the Syrian Air Force will be a major turning point in the war and will erase a decisive advantage for the regime. When military officials see a strong foreign presence, similar to the Libyan affair, many will also be likely to switch sides or flee. Finally, a No Fly Zone will require a fraction of the financial investment compared to a full force ground invasion along with a much smaller loss in lives on the American front.
After years of focusing on the many problems in the greater Middle East, President Obama feels the urge to address America’s other foreign policy challenges, many which come in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. But the President cannot afford to pivot from the region when the Syrian bomb continues to tick, threatening to inflame the region’s many other conflicts. America must act to end this 18-month humanitarian crisis – and a No Fly Zone is the best option for success.
Aaron Magid is a Staff Writer for The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs. You can reach him via twitter @AaronMagid