August 23, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A De Facto No-Fly Zone in Syria

• On August 22, a Pentagon spokesman warned Syrian and Russian air force units to ‘stay away’ from U.S. forces embedded with Kurdish fighters.

• The warning came in response to an August 19 incident in which U.S. F-22 jets were scrambled to warn off Syrian SU-24 jets near Hasakah.

• A day earlier, Syrian jets bombed Kurdish positions in the area, causing U.S. personnel to relocate.

• The Pentagon’s warning represents a de facto—though very narrow—no-fly zone over ‘partnered operations’ in parts of northern Syria.


As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, there are signs of significant shifts in the dynamics of the conflict. In addition to indications of another attempt to unify the rebel groups under a coalition of moderates and extremists, recent U.S. statements imply it will create a de facto no-fly zone over anti-Islamic State forces with which the U.S. has embedded personnel. During an August 22 press conference, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook warned Syria and Russia to ‘stay away’ from rebel units that include U.S. special operations forces (SOF) serving as trainers and combat advisors. He added that the U.S. would forcefully and militarily respond to any aircraft that threatened its ‘partnered operations.’ The warning effectively creates a no-fly zone over joint U.S.-Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) units in northern Syria, despite the U.S. denial that it is imposing a no-fly zone.

The shift in U.S. posture stems from two recent incidents near Hasakah, where U.S.-supported Kurdish troops are positioned. On August 18, two Syrian SU-24 jets attacked four locations well-known to include U.S. personnel. Though no U.S. personnel were injured, the brazen nature of the attack was surprising. Syrian jets returned to the area the following day, but were chased off by U.S. F-22 Raptors. U.S. statements have now made clear that future incidents will likely result in the shooting down of Syrian aircraft—a noticeable shift.

The U.S. has long opposed the creation of a no-fly zone over any sizable part of Syria. While no-fly zones may seem like an attractive option on paper, they are enormously complex and costly endeavors—made even more complicated with the presence of the Russian air force and new S-400 air defense systems on the ground. Furthermore, the U.S. has tried to limit its involvement in Syria to a strictly anti-Islamic State focus, something that has earned the ire of most rebel groups. After the U.S. chased off the Syrian jets, there was criticism online from Syrian activists that the U.S. would protect its Kurdish proxies but stand aside while civilians were being bombed repeatedly by both Russian and Syrian forces.

The dynamics of tensions and alliances in the Syrian civil war have alternated throughout the conflict; there has been a recent increase in fighting between the Assad regime and Kurdish forces, the latter of which the U.S. wants to remain focused on fighting the Islamic State. Turkey’s position on the Assad regime also appears to have evolved—now saying Assad could be part of a transitional Syrian government—but its opposition to the Kurds remains fixed. Relations between the U.S. and Turkey are strained, and Turkey will undoubtedly view a U.S. zone of protection as a de facto no-fly zone benefiting the Kurds, regardless of the terminology used to describe it.

Given how crowded the Syrian battlefield and airspace have become, it is somewhat surprising that such close calls have not occurred more frequently. Russia has attacked U.S. supported rebel positions in the south near the Jordanian border, though for the most part the U.S. and Russia have taken steps to avoid any serious incidents. It remains to be seen if the Syrian Air Force intends to test the limits of the de facto no-fly zone. With so many militaries and air forces operating in Syria, the chance for dramatic escalation remains high.


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