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The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le
Drian, recently stated that France is willing to help impose
a “partial” no-fly zone in Syria, pending
international legitimacy and participation, and so long as it was not a full
no-fly zone, since that would be “tantamount to war.” There are several
curiosities to unravel here, and they are not exactly unique to this case.
The modern obsession with finding forms of military intervention short of war is a quixotic enterprise. As Micah Zenko has extensively studied, and co-blogger Adam has written about elsewhere, Discrete Military Operations such as no-fly zones are tantamount to wars in many respects. They are, if not sanctioned internationally, acts of aggression. They will often be treated by the target actor as an act of war. The dynamics of conflict and military action still apply.
What is particularly revealing here is that a “partial” no-fly zone is floated as some sort of non-war action, but a nationwide no-fly zone in Syria would be “tantamount to war.” But of course, imposing a no-fly zone over part of Syria or the whole of it is a matter of quantitative degree rather than qualitative difference. As I explored in a piece for the United States Naval Institute, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would likely mean conducting intensive Suppression of Enemy Air Defense to destroy Syria’s air defenses and air force. Even a partial no-fly zone would likely require some strikes outside its limits in order to degrade Syrian airfields, early-warning radars and mobile or semi-mobile air defense systems.
Imposing even a partial no-fly zone would be tantamount to war, just as arming Syria’s rebels would be an act of war, and constitute foreign engagement in the Syrian civil war, and their success would rely on the combustible cocktail of passion, reason, and chance that all wars do. The difference between these “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military actions” and war is ultimately an arbitrary distinction of political language which gives away when either the target or the intervening force, in order to achieve its objectives, escalates force to the point where the label is no longer tenable or useful.
In Iraq, the case is instructive on the dangers and shortcomings of such short-of-war thinking. In the wake of Desert Storm, despite the battlefield defeat of the Iraqi army and widespread desertion or imprisonment of Iraqi conscripts, Iraq maintained the will to suppress revolts in its north and south, resulting in the imposition of no-fly zones under Operations Northern and Southern Watch. The result was continued U.S. engagement in warfare against Iraqi air defenses and air forces and Iraqi warfare against rebelling forces in both no-fly zones. Saddam repeatedly violated America’s imposed standards despite the experience of 1990-91, which occasionally required the threatened reinsertion of Western ground forces or, in the wake of Saddam’s intervention in the Kurdish Civil War, and ended pretenses of respecting them due to strikes nominally aimed at his WMD program (but in practice, at many other critical political and military facilities). Ultimately, America’s political goals in Iraq, as codified in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, required a military action everybody rightfully identified as a war.
Ultimately, although using labels such as “humanitarian intervention,” “kinetic military action,” or, to get really old school, “Quasi-War” may be politically or historically sensible, particularly in retrospect, they remain, from the perspective of military analysis grappling with prospective scenarios, frequently misleading. It is only the result of an equilibrium between the preferences of the belligerents engaged, and frequently devolve into war because each side retains the capacity to frustrate the political objectives of the other without an unmistakable increase in willpower or commitment. In Iraq, that increase ultimately came in the form of an invasion force. In Libya, luckily enough, it was a combination of NATO airstrikes and a weak government military which allowed escalation to proceed on much more favorable terms. Any application of concerted military force against a sovereign state is “tantamount to war.” Being vague or conflicted about its ends and obscure about its ways and means just makes it more politically convenient to discuss openly, but less convenient to discuss effectively.