James Jeffrey, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, recently raised the possibility of a no-fly zone for the Syrian Kurdish regions (Rojava), invoking the precedent of the US defense of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Advocating such a no-fly zone is a lot easier said than done, however, especially in light of Syria’s complex and precarious state today.
“Remember, we were present not in northern Iraq, but over northern Iraq in Operation Northern Watch for 13 years,” Jeffrey said earlier this month, indicating a similar arrangement could be made for northern Syria – but not necessarily a US mission.
“That can be a UN force,” he said. “Under [resolution] 2254, there is language on a UN-managed and operated ceasefire. That can be partner forces. That can be other countries’ forces.”
His reference to the Kurdistan Region’s no-fly zone is a strong indication of which parts of Syria he has in mind: Rojava and other areas currently controlled by Kurdish forces. After all, he could have just as easily pointed to similar Southern Watch no-fly zone over Iraq’s Shiite south.
Those no-fly zones had no mandate from the UN but were a purely a US, British and, until 1998, French endeavour. Ultimately they proved to be an essential moral undertaking since they doubtlessly saved thousands of innocent Kurds, as well as Shiites, from being butchered by Saddam Hussein’s helicopter gunships and helped incubate the autonomous Kurdistan Region we have today.
It is important to remember these achievements were not the result of UN or international action since the UN Security Council did not authorize them. In fact, former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali later called their actions “illegal”.
Arguably a better analogy Jeffrey could have used for advocating a UN initiative for a Syria no-fly zone would have been Bosnia in the early 1990s, particularly Security Council Resolution 816, which authorized the enforcement of previous bans on all flights over Bosnia. Given the Russian and Chinese power to veto on the Security Council, voting through anything resembling this resolution today would prove difficult.
In reality, the US and France are likely the only countries with the initiative and capability of establishing any kind of a no-fly zone over Syria in the near future.
US air power has effectively maintained a de-facto no-fly zone over northeast Syria in recent years, intercepting Syrian bombers targeting Kurdish forces in Hasaka in August 2016 and even shooting down a Syrian warplane targeting Kurdish-led forces in Tabqa in July 2017.
Also, last February, several US warplanes decimated a force of pro-regime militiamen, who were launching an attack across the Euphrates River against a headquarters belonging to its Kurdish-led allies.
The US, of course, did not intercept any Turkish aircraft during this time. Turkey bombed a Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) base in northeast Syria on April 25, 2017, which US forces working with the YPG say they weren’t given adequate forewarning about.
That same month the YPG began calling on the US to establish a no-fly zone. It is obvious they meant one to prevent Turkish airstrikes. It later called for the same thing during the Afrin invasion early this year when the Turkish Air Force bombarded that tiny enclave. The US took no such action.
Turkish shelling of northeast Syria, where the US and France work closely with YPG-led forces, in late October and early November prompted US troops to establish observation posts along the border, clearly in order to deter any Turkish ground incursion. While such a move will not prevent airstrikes, it will likely deter a major Turkish incursion – at least for now.
Establishing a no-fly zone against Turkey in Rojava would be an enormously complicated endeavour. The no-fly zone over the Kurdistan Region was largely made possible by Turkey permitting the US-led coalition to use Incirlik Airbase, which today also serves as the primary hub for US-led air power participating in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
It is unlikely Ankara would allow the coalition to continue using this airbase for long if it became the primary hub for aircraft enforcing a no-fly zone in neighbouring Rojava against the Turkish Air Force.
Also, how readily would the US, or other coalition aircraft, shoot down a Turkish warplane if that is what it ultimately took to enforce any no-fly zone? And, even if the US did somehow manage to establish a successful no-fly zone over Rojava, Turkey could still devastate Kurdish positions with its long-range artillery deployed on its own side of the border with relative ease.
Turkey recently declared it will not accept a fait accompli in Syria, claiming its actions are self-defensive. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, has said more than once that Turkey will come suddenly at night without warning to kill its enemies, meaning Turkey will undoubtedly seize any opportunity to pounce on the YPG whenever any arises.
Its recent airstrikes against alleged Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in both Makhmour and Shingal are a case in point, as was its unprecedented aerial assassination of senior PKK member Zaki Shingali in Shingal on August 15.
Comparisons with the Kurdistan Region no-fly zone can only go so far. Neither the PKK nor any of its affiliates were ever the predominant group in the Kurdistan Region. This is one reason, despite its bluster, opposition, and threats toward the nascent Kurdistan Region, that Turkey ultimately never invaded and later even forged good relations with Erbil.
Since Rojava attained de-facto self-rule back in 2012, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPG, which Turkey sees as indistinguishable from the PKK, has been in charge.
“Those who might think that the Iraqi experience could be emulated and that in time Turkey will come to accept a Kurdish ‘enclave’, ‘self-rule’, ‘entity’, and autonomous region (whatever you call it) in Syria as well might be committing a grave mistake,” wrote Hurriyet news columnist Barçın Yinanç earlier this month.
“As long as Syrian Kurds do not separate themselves from the PKK and the PKK is poised as an ‘ally’ to the US, it would be naïve to expect Turkey to stand by and watch,” she concluded.
Earlier this month the US reportedly advised its Syrian Kurdish allies to sever any links it may still retain with the PKK’s headquarters in Qandil Mountain. It may also need to convince the ruling PYD to permit the Kurdish National Council (KNC) to operate unmolested in Rojava, along with its armed wing the Rojava Peshmerga, ideally as part of a larger joint paramilitary force which also incorporates the YPG.
Such steps will prove essential for the establishment of something resembling the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Rojava. Anything less is unlikely to prevent Turkish attacks or a major invasion in the long-term.
Establishing a no-fly zone purely to defend Rojava against any Syrian strikes would also prove difficult in the long-term. While Turkey vocally supported the US bombing of Syrian regime targets last March, in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack, it stressed that none of the bombers participating used Incirlik.
Turkey would also hardly approve of Incirlik being used purely for the establishment of an aerial umbrella to defend its Kurdish enemy against Damascus, especially after any defeat of ISIS, which Ankara is already arguing no longer poses any threat to northern Syria.
Ultimately, Turkey would rather see the Syrian regime reconquer the northeast and a return to something resembling the Adana Protocol. Under that agreement, signed in October 1998, Damascus agreed to crack down on the PKK in Syria, and expel its leader Abdullah Ocalan, in order to stave off the threat of Turkish military action.
Damascus cooperated under the Adana Protocol so satisfactorily that when Ankara wanted to extradite a PKK suspect, “Al-Assad would extradite not only that person but all his cousins, as well,” quipped one Turkish intelligence analyst.
Furthermore, Russia would likely oppose an explicit US-led no-fly zone over Rojava, especially after ISIS is largely defeated, and may actively work to undermine it. Just this month, in a very telling statement, the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov accused the US of trying to create a Kurdish quasi-state in Rojava independent of the Syrian regime.
“They [the Americans] are also forming a government for the so-called Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,” he told a press conference, according to Tass News. “The Americans, that support the Kurds’ separatist sentiments by delivering arms and military equipment, allow[ing] them to oppress Arab tribes.”
While the no-fly zone over the Kurdistan Region is certainly a desirable precedent for today’s Rojava, its feasibility is not nearly as simple or straightforward.