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.