Lebanon is one of the few Middle Eastern countries left that hasn’t been thrown into turmoil by the “Arab Spring.”
But with Syria next door, that may not last long.
Lebanon’s northern urban hub, Tripoli, has long been on the edge of stability. But now that it’s both a destination for Syrian refugees and potentially a rear base for Syrian rebels it has fallen into tit-for-tat killings and urban warfare.
On Monday last week, the city was quiet with tension, and cars were backed up as far as the eye could see at military checkpoints.
At the Citadel, a formidable medieval fort that is normally one of Tripoli’s biggest tourist destinations, there was hardly a foreign soul to be seen. Asked why attendance was so light, the government ticket-seller there mumbled, “Syria.”
In the three days following, according to press reports, at least 10 people were killed— most gunned down by snipers on the aptly named Syria Street, which divides a Sunni – Muslim neighborhood from an Alawite one.
As the Syrian civil war escalates and expands, policy makers are increasingly examining proposals to patrol “safe,” “liberated,” or “buffer zones” with military aircraft. Creating safe zones, Turkish officials have argued, could relieve human suffering and hasten the fall of the Assad regime without a more costly direct intervention. Ubiquitous in Western interventions since Operation Provide Comfort in postwar Iraq, and infamous in the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, safe zones once again appear a straightforward solution to an intractable conflict. Yet the strategic and logistical details present serious challenges. Despite the relatively easy execution of a safe zone around Benghazi in Libya, a comparable effort to protect besieged cities in Syria would be much more costly and difficult.
A previous post outlined the significant aerial and maritime demands for creating a no-fly zone, which would be a prerequisite to creating a safe zone over any part of Syria. Inadequate suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) would be problematic enough for air superiority fighters enforcing a no-fly zone, but would be even more threatening for aircraft performing ground interdiction strikes.
Despite the prominence of attack helicopters and combat jets in discussions of the Syrian conflict, destroying Syrian air power is unlikely to be either decisive overall or sufficient to defend safe zones.
The success of the Libyan air intervention is a historical anomaly. In 1993, NATO’s Deny Flight no-fly zone over Bosnia failed to deter ground forces from attacking designated safe areas, eventually requiring ground bombardment and, more importantly, a massive Croatian ground offensive to defeat Serbian forces. In Iraq after the Gulf War, no-fly zones and years of punitive bombardments did not dissuade Saddam Hussein from repeatedly launching ground attacks into Shia and Kurdish areas. In Libya, it was rapidly obvious that destroying the Libyan ground threat to Benghazi, not simply its air force, was necessary to defend safe zones.