Demands for a ‘no-fly zone’ for the Kurdish-led regions of North and East Syria (NES) are commonplace. Activists have launched the hashtag campaign #NoFlyZone4Rojava, while the region’s political and military leaders regularly repeat the demand in public statements and meetings with Western officials. Locals have protested outside the bases of both Russian and American militaries in the region with the same demand. But what does this demand mean, politically and militarily, and is there any feasible route to achieve it?
The concept of a no-fly zone is a relatively modern one which evolved during the era of American military hegemony and ‘world policing’ from 1990 onward. Indeed, the concept was first deployed in Kurdistan, following the 1991 Gulf War. The United States intervened in the Kurdish region of Bashur in northern Iraq, with the stated aim of preventing further genocide and use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish people by the dictator Saddam Hussein. Of course, this also allowed the USA to establish a foothold in what would become the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which would be instrumental in their subsequent invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam in 2003.
On the one hand, continued memories of the US intervention contribute to the continued search for international protection for Kurdistan. On the other hand, the US intervention in Iraq illustrates the truth that any interventions by the USA – or other international actors – will mask realpolitik and strategic aims which have nothing to do with the defence of the Kurdish people.
No matter how true they are, neither ethical nor legal arguments are never going to be enough to promote a change in USA or international policy. The US military action and bombing along Iraq’s 33rd parallel was condemned by the United Nations, but soon became a de facto reality – and the KRI officially recognised in the new Iraqi constitution.
Today, the USA, the UN and other international actors use legalistic arguments to justify their lack of support for NES in a number of fields. There is no way to establish an international court to try ISIS fighters as the region is not internationally recognized, they lament – despite the fact these are the very same powers who could unilaterally recognize the region if they chose. There is no way to overcome the Russian veto which blocks UN aid from entering NES, they sigh – despite the fact all these powers act unilaterally in Syria whenever it pleases them.
The same is true for the proposed no-fly zone. The fact is a no-fly zone for NES would be a political statement, not a legal necessity. The USA and Russia already engage in deconfliction over the region’s airspace, and are currently not allowing Turkey to launch a significant ground or air assault as this does not suit their political interests. On the other hand, neither would be likely to shoot down Turkish jets if President Erdoğan threw caution to the winds and launched an invasion regardless.
The declaration of a no-fly zone would be a political act, a public statement of opposition to the Turkish government’s policies of ethnic cleansing and occupation in northern Syria. In such finely-balanced circumstances, neither US nor Russian guarantors have any appetite for such a bold declaration, and prefer to continue their policy of appeasement toward Turkey – notably, by turning a blind eye to the heightening campaign of air strikes.
As Italian journalist Benedetta Argentieri recently told Medya News, “I don’t think [the establishment of a no-fly zone] will happen… If there is a large movement of people, such as people taking to the streets, maybe this could happen. I don’t have much trust that the international community will stand up and do what is necessary.”
In the absence of any political will on behalf of the international powers, international communities must continue to stand with NES and its Kurdish, Arabic, Christian, Yezidi and other residents. They themselves cannot shield the people of NES from the Turkish drone strikes which have killed scores this year alone, nor any coming invasion. But though they cannot close the skies, they can stand alongside the people, and continue holding the guarantor powers to account through all means at their disposal.