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How Hard Would It Be To Impose A No-Fly Zone In Syria?


The United States is still trying to decide whether to give military aid to rebel groups in Syria. Now, this could mean sending weapons and ammunition or imposing a no-fly zone over Syria. Some military planners say that maintaining a no-fly zone is difficult and expensive. Other dispute that. Kevin Baron covers military issues for the E-Ring blog at Foreign Policy magazine. He joins us in the studio. Thanks so much for being with us.

KEVIN BARON: You're welcome.

SIMON: In a recent post you wrote that creating a no-fly zone could be, and let me quote you, "far easier and cheaper than top brass is letting on."

BARON: Well, it could be, depending on what type of a no-fly zone, or what exactly they want to accomplish. So there's two basic ways to do this. Either you create a zone over hostile territory, over Syria, which requires taking out air defenses, taking out runways, and then maintaining that space with a high level of sorties of fighters that have to be backed by aerial refueling tankers. It gets expensive quickly.

The other option, that according to some analysts is, you just destroy the Syrian air force on the ground and you don't have to patrol a space that they can't contest anyway.

SIMON: The second option would be far less expensive.

BARON: Exactly, yeah.

SIMON: And involving, for that matter.

BARON: Well, of course. By some estimates, there are fewer than 50 planes the U.S. really needs to worry about, or allies need to worry about. So you can take those out with, usually the U.S. does it with cruise missiles. That's how they did it in Libya a couple years ago.

SIMON: What's the effect of having a no-fly zone?

BARON: The effect is that you're taking away Syria's ability to attack, number one, rebels who are fighting, but most importantly, I think, and at least the top excuse or reason given by the international community is that it prevents Syria from attacking non-combatants, civilians who are fleeing the fighting and trying to escape through Turkey and Jordan.

SIMON: If it's relatively easy and inexpensive, why are so many members of the top brass opposed?

BARON: Well, there are consequences, you know, to everything the military does. General Dempsey has said repeatedly this spring...

SIMON: General Dempsey is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

BARON: Yes. That before he gets the military involved, he wants to have a clear understanding of what's the purpose of their mission, what the outcome is so that they can prepare for that. Also because this is Syria, the other factor too is any other retaliations that would come from either Syria or perhaps Hezbollah or the greatest fear of all, Iran. What would they do if the U.S. actively, you know, strikes Syrian forces?

SIMON: There is news this week that Russia may sell the Syrian government an advanced air defense system.


SIMON: How would that change the equation of some of the military thinkers who now think that a no-fly zone is practical?

BARON: Well, let's put it this way. It's not just giving them the weapons; it's, even with this system, if it was able to get to Syria in the first place, get set up, and be considered a credible defense, you know, the United States is well equipped to even, I think, go after that system. You know, we have more cruise missiles than we know what to do with in this military, and, you know, that argument alone is one way to get things started if you just want to take out those defenses before you even have to worry about sending in, you know, squadrons of F-35s or F-22s or whatever plane you want to pick, for what most people imagine a no-fly zone has to look like. It doesn't have to look like that, and there's more than one way to skin a no-fly zone, I guess.

SIMON: Kevin Baron, who writes the E-Ring blog for Foreign Policy magazine. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.