Victims, observers, and stakeholders decry lack of international consensus on a measure that can still save precious lives.
Implementation of a no-fly zone in Syria has been debated for the past two years even as civilians continue to die at the hands of Bashar al-Assad regime and Russia’s bombardment of rebel-held areas. Yet, experts and observers continue to remain divided over its feasibility and the victims of carnage watch with bated breath.
“Words will not stop Assad and Russia’s bombs from killing us,” Hamood Jneid, a local from Kafranbel, Syria tells Al Arabiya English, adding that the Syrians blame “anyone” who has the authority to stop the killing and doesn’t.
According to Jneid, most people in his village, Kafranbel, point fingers at America, which has done “absolutely nothing” and used only “meaningless words” despite the atrocities being committed by Assad and Russia.
Jneid and the residents of the village are not the only ones bitter about the international community not creating safe buffer zones in Syria.
“Why us? Why is it our children that are dying? Why do children anywhere else in the word have the right to live, and our children are being killed? All this, because we demanded our freedom?” he lamented.
Khaled Salame, an aid worker from northwestern Syria, told Al Arabiya English that he can’t understand how an army can kill its own people. Salame explained how he watched Russian jets fly over the village of Saraqeb, Idlib, on Monday and drop “several” bombs.
He said he can’t get “the screams of children and women out of his head”.
“I felt hysterical. The hardest thing is to see an old man running around and crying like a child… I’m used to seeing children cry, not old grown men,” he said.
Videos surface every day showing women, children, and the elderly running for cover as bombs drop from the skies and raze dwellings.
On Wednesday night, footage of of 5-year-old, Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo, saved from under the rubbles after apparent air strikes struck his neighborhood, circulated the Internet.
Omran’s reaction shocked the globe, as he was rushed into an emergency vehicle. With his face bloodied as he sat there wordlessly, Omran silently wipes the blood off his face, observes his palm, and looks around, tacit and expressionless.
Mostafa Saroot, a photographer with Aleppo’s Media Center, and the man behind the shocking footage, expresses his puzzlement towards the popularity of this single shot, since pictures like this are coming out every day.
“There are dozens of Omrans every day in Aleppo,” Saroot explains to Al Arabiya English, “I wish they would implement a no fly zone so children can keep safe.”
The dazed, dusted, and bloodied face of Omran is only a minuscule window into the horror, atrocities, and nightmare of Allepo. With 400,000+ death and millions more displaced, Syrian conflict has stretched on for years.
“Our children are becoming mentally disturbed,” Saroot continues. “Omran’s silence spoke for the all the Syrians suffering.” Shrouded head to toe in a blanket of dust and caked on ruble and debris, Omran was captured in a deadend, numb daze, his reaction to his own bloodied face chillingly indifferent and anesthetized.
“I hope this picture reaches the UN and the international community und they understand that our children have developed psychological problems due to the heavy bombardment on Aleppo,” he said.
According to a senior UN official, 400,000 people have died in the five-year war, while Syrian research groups have estimated the death toll to be at least 470,000.
Why no fly zone?
He said that with the many different forces fighting on the ground, the US has leverage to target and bomb any extremist group, which they would not be able to do if there was a no-fly zone.
Russia has also rejected no-fly zone saying it would weaken the fight against terrorism. Germany and Turkey have, however, called for no-fly zone in parts of Syria to decrease the outflow of refugees.
US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said even if there were areas in Syria where planes could not fly over it, the killing would not stop, because ISIS would still be able to carry out massacres.
He also mentioned that a no-fly zone would require an “enormous” amount of US resources, when America’s main focus is to wipe out ISIS.
“A no fly zone might create some additional ability to manage some of the refugee flows and brush back some of the Syrian regime’s air attacks on civilians, but frankly that violence could just manifest itself in different ways on the ground or migrate to different areas,” Rhodes said in a podcast on “The Axe Files”.
Nathan Tek, US Department of State spokesperson in the Middle East, told Al Arabiya English that the US believes that only a negotiated political solution can bring a “sustainable” end to the conflict.
“That solution must result in a transition away from Assad – as long as he stays, the conflict will continue. But military options will not solve that problem,” he said.
What would a no-fly zone mean?
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, senior political adviser, government relations director, and strategist for the Syrian American Council in Washington DC, says a no-fly zone could lead to a potential political solution.
Ghanem told Al Arabiya English that not only would a no-fly zone in Syria “stem the flow of refugees by protecting civilians” but also “increase” the possibility of a political solution by proving to the Syrian regime that Assad “cannot” win militarily.
He said he believes the only backlash is the risk of “increased US-Russia tensions”.
According to Ghanem, top ex-US generals have told him that such a solution would be feasible, in spite of Russia’s heavy involvement, and that Obama’s decision to abstain is “political”.
“Most likely, at the start of his administration, President Obama was motivated mainly by the desire to avoid another Iraq. But once Iran got seriously involved on the regime side, Obama likely felt the need to avoid targeting Assad in order to preserve the nuclear deal,” he explained.
Mohammed said he believes a “no-fly zone would tilt the scales in favor of moderation and stability in opposition-controlled areas while providing Syrians with a chance to build up a real alternative to Assad’s dictatorship.”
Ghanem said that the constant air raids on obvious civilian targets are “designed” to create havoc in opposition areas, preventing a real alternative to Assad and to create conditions “so desperate that extremism is a natural reaction for many”.
He said even though both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have voiced support of safe zones in Northern Syria, they have contradicted the idea by expressing interest in partnering with Russia, the “deadliest killers of Syrian civilians at the moment”.
According to Ghanem, this makes it difficult to pin down either candidate’s intentions.
Roz Griffiths, senior press officer at the foreign and commonwealth office, told Al Arabiya English they believe reviving the possibility of ceasefire remains the best way to reduce violence.
“We will continue to explore options to improve the situation, including the possibility of no-fly zones. However, there are a number of significant challenges, as “safe” zones can prove difficult to demilitarize and protect against all threats,” Griffith said.
Assad al-Zobi, head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) south of the country, tells Al Arabiya English world powers have not allowed safe zones in parts of Syria. This has forced people to flee resulting in a change of demographics that works in Iran’s favor and that of the Assad regime.
Advocates of a no-fly zone
Shiyam Galyon, a Syrian-American writer and researcher has been advocating a no-fly zone for a long time.
The Syrian-American activist told Al Arabiya English that despite strong calls for a no-fly zone from Syrians inside the country and the Syrian diaspora, major INGOs, international activists and international political bodies continue to remain “awkwardly silent” or reject the idea.
“So many people around the world want to stand in solidarity with Syria. And that’s great: The Syrian revolution is based on principles that no doubt will elicit solidarity from anyone who values human and civil rights.”
However, when people are being brutalized, I no longer want to stand in solidarity with them. For those people, I will shout loudly for intervention,” Galyon said. She says that is why it is vital for anyone who believes in freedom and dignity to “shout for a no-fly zone”.
Earlier this month, children in besieged Aleppo were hailed “little heroes” all over the media after they burnt tires to create “no-fly zones” by raising smoke to confuse the planes bombing them, hospitals, and markets.
“When Aleppo’s children burned tires to blacken the sky, they proved that there is a clear Syrian will for a no-fly zone. That children in a war zone did more to avert planes coming to bomb them than the international community ever did is a sign that they are dysfunctional,” Galyon said.