Despite the public pressure, French military specialists recognize how the Libya war was conducted and what it says about the possibility of a similar intervention in Syria.
Suggestions from the refugee-burdened Turkish government and others in Europe that a humanitarian no-fly zone could be set up near the Turkish border do not make military sense, military specialists said. This is because Syria’s Russian-supplied integrated air defense network would have to be taken out — from the border south to Damascus and beyond — to make defending such a zone with allied air patrols possible, he said.
Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish F4 Phantom on a border-skirting reconnaissance patrol in June showed that Assad’s air defenses are already on alert, the NATO officer pointed out, speaking on the condition of anonymity to enable a frank discussion.
If the mission were limited to protecting a narrow humanitarian corridor along the border — and not removing Assad — this could be done by positioning antiaircraft missiles on the Turkish side of the line and warning Syrian planes against violating a no-fly zone, said Francois Heisbourg, a military expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. But it would be unwise to try anything like that without a U.N. mandate, he added, because it would be an act of war with hard-to-control consequences and would set a dangerous precedent.
The pressure for action has been particularly oriented toward humanitarian concerns such as a border safe zone because the “right to intervene” remains vivid in the French public’s mind. The concept was pushed onto the international scene in the 1980s by Bernard Kouchner, who had helped start Doctors Without Borders a decade earlier and, as “the French doctor,” stirred worldwide concern over Vietnamese boat people after the fall of Saigon. He was foreign minister in the early Sarkozy years.
In any case, after-action studies show that, even after NATO assumed command of the Libya bombing, the United States remained the only country with sufficient intelligence-gathering drones to permit NATO officers at their Naples headquarters to get a picture of the battlefield, and the only country with enough aerial refueling tankers to keep NATO aircraft in the air. The United States flew about 80 percent of aerial refueling flights over seven months of bombing, the studies found.
The U.S. Predator drones were particularly important in the Libya operation because NATO target planners were ordered to avoid civilian casualties. Although several mistaken attacks occurred, killing civilians, the officer said, two-thirds of the objectives singled out for bombing by targeting specialists were turned down because of a danger that civilians might be hurt.
A Syria intervention would be staggeringly more difficult because the country is not clearly divided into areas controlled by the army and others controlled by the rebels.
Moreover, Syrian rebels fighting inside the country are divided into multiple groups, some geographical and others with an Islamist agenda hostile to the West.making it difficult to coordinate to avoid friendly-fire incidents.
The Syrian military also is substantially more formidable than Libya’s, the officer said, with a trained officer corps that Gaddafi lacked and more than 300,000 regulars, 5,000 tanks and 500 warplanes.Finally, he said, in the Libya operation NATO forces benefited from the most powerful weapon of all: “There was a lot of luck involved.”