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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Globalization

Looking to Syria: No-fly zones and political stability in Iraq and Libya

Operation Provide Comfort

Operation Provide Comfort [Photo: US Navy]

This article appeared in JMEPP’s Spring 2016 print edition.

The ongoing civil war in Syria has reignited interest in no-fly zones as policy options for halting violence against civilians and maintaining stability in conflict-ridden regions. In order to evaluate the success of this policy option, this article will survey a portion of relevant literature to establish the components of no fly-zone operations, followed by an examination of US-led Operation Provide Comfort in northern Iraq and Unified Protector in Libya to answer the following questions: 1) What goals did policymakers hope to achieve with these operations?, and 2) Did these operations produce the desired political outcomes?

While the number of implemented no-fly zones is limited, these particular cases were chosen due to their similarity with the situation in Syria. Operational and political goals will be measured using relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and presidential statements, as these best capture the strategic thinking at the time of implementation. Outcomes will be measured through an analysis of the security and political situations on the ground shortly after the cessation of operations. Though subject to interpretation, this metric provides estimates for the performance of the no-fly zones in question and insights as to their overall success. Finally, this piece will discuss the findings from the case study analysis and make brief policy recommendations for a no-fly zone in Syria.

Due to its infrequent use, the literature on no-fly zones remains limited but suggests a three-category typology, developed by Alexander Benard, for classifying operations (see Table 1). Type 1 features air assets providing air cover for ground troops deployed in combat or otherwise hostile environments; Type 2 presents air assets as the sole means of influencing the situation on the ground; and Type 3 employs air assets as a deterrent for creating a buffer space between combatants on the ground.

Table 1. Benard’s No­-Fly Zone Typology

[table id=1 /]

All three types prioritize establishing air supremacy in the designated zone and also seek to collect intelligence to monitor developments on the ground. The discriminating factor between types is the amount of risk assumed by the military forces responsible for maintaining the zone. Yet, this typology remains weak when differentiating between desired political outcomes. While Types 1 and 2 could describe classic military operations between belligerent parties, only Type 3 specifically seeks to de-conflict and potentially create humanitarian safe zones, thus resembling the common understanding of the no-fly zone.

Conceptual Definitions

Many military analysts broadly define no-fly zones as the restriction of airspace to unauthorized aircraft. These analysts narrowly define success and focus almost exclusively on military objectives to inform future operations. This approach could misrepresent to policymakers the often unanticipated political outcomes that result from establishing no-fly zones. While the no-fly zone is one of many variables (including domestic political calculations and the uncertainty of military operations, for example) that can explain these outcomes, this article focuses on it as the primary means through which policymakers are engaged on the ground. Political destabilization is an alternative theoretical approach that frames coercive airpower as a means of undermining a regime. This perspective better captures the political implications of constraining sovereignty and exhibiting a regime’s weakness vis-à-vis domestic opposition. This case study reveals that far from merely restricting airspace, the two no-fly zones examined severely eroded regime control, leading to soft partition in northern Iraq and regime change in Libya.


American policymakers from across the ideological spectrum have repeatedly called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over besieged areas of Syria in order to protect civilians. Advocates of humanitarian intervention rightly concentrate on the near-term goal of establishing safe zones in which to provide much needed relief. Yet, the implications for political stability have not, thus far, received sufficient consideration when discussing no-fly zone options. Historically, two no-fly zones established under similar circumstances provide data for analyzing the potential outcomes of such a policy. US-led Operation Provide Comfort and Unified Protector, occurring in 1991 and 2011, respectively, enforced no-fly zones over northern Iraq and Libya and were implemented to halt regime violence against civilian populations. The current debate surrounding the efficacy of no-fly zones typically cite at least one of these cases as evidence of success; however, success has been measured in terms of military, as opposed to political, outcomes. If no-fly zone advocates seek to use these cases as evidence for implementing a no-fly zone in Syria, the implications of implementing them for political stability must also be considered.

Political stability in the context of third party intervention in local military conflicts is difficult to measure. What time frame should be examined? What constitutes a desirable outcome? What circumstances differentiate between successes and failures? Some policymakers look to no-fly zones as a course of limited military intervention through which to provide humanitarian relief and meet the responsibility to protect innocent life, but the use of limited military power produces potentially destabilizing outcomes that go beyond the capabilities of humanitarian relief operations. The proliferation of authoritarian regimes that rely on force to maintain order, coupled with policymakers searching for options to influence events, has led to the current demand for no-fly zones in Syria. The outcome of implementing no-fly zones as they pertain to political stability must be taken into account when measuring the efficacy of the approach.

 A refueling mission during NATO’s Unified Protector operation in Libya

Operation Provide Comfort: Northern Iraq, 1991 to 1996


In response to the Iraqi invasion and consequent occupation of Kuwait in 1990, a US-led coalition pushed the Iraqi government forces that were occupying Kuwait back into southern Iraq, leading to the 28 February 1991 ceasefire and ending Operation Desert Storm. The coalition quickly routed much of the regular Iraqi army. However, most of the praetorian Republican Guard had withdrawn in good order, leaving the regime with a diminished, albeit capable, military. Shortly before declaring the ceasefire, President George H.W. Bush called on “the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Kurdish and Shi’a rebellions soon broke out in the north and south of the country with fighting, producing civilian casualties and severe food shortages among populations deemed sympathetic to the rebels.

During formal negotiations with Iraqi generals over the terms of the ceasefire, US General Norman Schwarzkopf granted Iraq permission to fly helicopters, but not fixed-wing aircraft. This resulted in the Iraqi army using helicopters against the rebels. The US-led coalition strictly enforced its decision to ban Iraqi use of fixed-wing aircraft, to which the regime largely complied. The Republican Guard instead relied on armored ground units, artillery, and helicopters in their campaign that ended in April 1991 with the defeat of the rebels. The defeat sparked fear among Kurdish civilians that the regime would make use of its chemical weapons stockpiles, as it had done in 1988 during the Iran–Iraq War. Soon thereafter, over two million Kurdish refugees were scattered across the mountainous border region between Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. On 5 April 1998, the UNSC acknowledged the crisis and adopted Resolution 688 in response.

Operational and Political Goals

Under the authority provided by UNSC 688, President George H.W. Bush ordered the start of Operation Provide Comfort, a military humanitarian relief effort and no-fly zone. The operation included ground elements and humanitarian relief on the Iraqi-Turkish border with a no-fly zone enforced against “Iraqi fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft flying north of the 36th parallel.” The first phase of the operation saw a Type 1 no-fly zone, but with the withdrawal of ground troops in mid-July of that year, it shifted to a Type 2. When asked about US commitment toward the protected enclaves, Bush responded that “I don’t think it has to be long-term … and now this is a logical step to get it [humanitarian relief] done much more sanitarily …” While recognizing the plight of Iraqi-Kurdish refugees, Bush made it clear that the United States did not wish “to see a fractured, destabilized Iraq,” that the U.S. was not going to “interfere in Iraq’s civil war,” and that the “Iraqi people must decide their own political future.” According to these stipulations, Operation Provide Comfort was a temporary solution to a humanitarian crisis and was not intended to lead to Iraq’s fracture.


Under coalition air cover, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) formed the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and held their first elections in May 1992, after which they formed a unity government. During this process the US never officially recognized the KRG, a red line for its ally Turkey, but rather provided assistance for the elections. However, significant economic pressure from internally displaced Kurds, a lack of reliable funding, and former guerrilla fighters not accustomed to governing led to a breakdown in the unity government, negatively impacting any political progress that had been achieved up to that point.

In May 1994, less than two years after the election, internal divisions in the Kurdish coalition government erupted into open fighting; by June, casualties numbered in the hundreds. What eventually became known as the Kurdish Civil War saw both sides seek assistance from external sources with the PUK favoring Iran and the KDP looking to Baghdad for support. In early August 1996, the Iraqi army advanced north on the Kurdish capital despite meager US objections. One US official at the time remarked that “overall, the administration was positively disgusted with the Kurds.” Operation Provide Comfort had successfully delivered much-needed humanitarian relief but had also provided space for the rekindling of hostilities.

Operation Unified Protector: Libya, 2011

In February 2011, Libyans in the city of Benghazi – inspired by public displays of dissatisfaction with authoritarian rule in neighboring states – held a “day of rage” demonstration that quickly spread to other eastern cities as regime control collapsed in the face of public protest. Armed opposition to the government was fueled in part by regional affiliations that pitted Muammar al-Qadhafi’s regime and its supporters in the west against its traditional rivals in the east. Reports at the time indicated that government forces responded to the initial protests with live ammunition; however, more recent scholarship suggests that government forces “refrained from deadly force until the protesters’ violence escalated.” While many security personnel and civil servants remained loyal to the regime, “a number of military officers, their units, and civilian officials” deserted the regime and joined the opposition, either as individuals or en masse.

On February 26, the UNSC adopted Resolution 1970 expressing concern over the “the use of force against civilians,” identifying the refugee crisis in the making caused by the violence, and “reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and national unity” of the Libyan state. Despite the armed opposition’s initial gains, by early March they were losing ground and government forces were approaching Benghazi. In response, the UN drafted a new resolution to implement a no-fly zone and NATO began planning for the operation. On March 17, the UNSC adopted Resolution 1973 and one day later, France, the United Kingdom, and the US began military action against Qadhafi forces until NATO’s Operation Unified Protector assumed formal control on March 29.

Operational and Political Goals

Resolution 1973 specifically authorized a no-fly zone to “establish a ban on all flight … in order to help protect civilians.” In order to provide such protection, the document authorized “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack…” The Security Council again reaffirmed its “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and national unity” of the Libyan state. From the outset of Unified Protection, the no-fly zone was a Type 2 with coalition forces also taking direct action against regime ground forces. Therefore, the UN sought to protect civilians from attack by regime forces while maintaining the integrity of the Libyan state.

On March 18, following the adoption of the resolution, President Barack Obama outlined his plans for the ongoing air campaign. He stated that the “focus has been clear: to protect innocent civilians within Libya” and to hold “the Qadhafi regime accountable” with the use of force not going “beyond … [that] well-defined goal …” He recognized that “the change in the region will not and cannot be imposed by the United States or any foreign power …” Before NATO assumed control, President Obama clarified the nature of operations, saying, “there is no question that Libya and the world would be better off with Qadhafi out of power … but broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” The speed at which the operation was authorized and implemented reveals that the US and its coalition partners believed a great loss of life was imminent and took action to prevent it. The political plans following the implementation of the no-fly zone were less well defined, and the Security Council Resolution did not specifically authorize regime change.


Operation Unified Protector officially ended on October 31, just eleven days after opposition forces executed Colonel Qadhafi. President Obama expressed his congratulations, saying that a “dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted. With this promise, the Libyan people now have a great responsibility: to build an inclusive and tolerant and democratic Libya …” On 16 September 2011, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2009, which stated that the international community “looks forward to stability in Libya” and hopes to “ensure a consultative, inclusive political process with a view to agreement on a constitution and the holding of free and fair elections.” The resolution also established the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to aid the newly empowered National Transition Council (NTC) in its efforts to restore order, undertake political dialogue, extend state authority, and promote human rights. Following the end of the operation and the announcement of the NTC as the official Libyan representative in the post-Qadhafi order, NATO ended the no-fly zone.

Despite the NTC holding nominal control of the government, on the ground the situation appeared far more fluid. Many of the anti-Qadhafi opposition groups now refused to disarm and demobilize. The NTC, lacking the requisite manpower, was in no position to force compliance from the diverse militias with which it had recently been allied. Several centers of power quickly developed within and outside of the NTC. In addition, Islamist militias that had been affiliated with the NTC began issuing demands and stockpiling arms. On 7 July 2012, elections were held for the General National Congress charged with appointing a Constituent Assembly to draw up Libya’s new constitution. While this constituted a significant achievement, its success would prove to be short lived.

On 11 September 2012, militants under the guise of an anti-US protest outside the US consulate in Benghazi assaulted the compound and killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and several of his colleagues. The US quickly pulled out all remaining personnel, followed closely by their European counterparts. At the time of this article’s writing, Libya is roughly divided between two warring camps, each with external sponsors and both composed of an assortment of armed groups controlling territory. Operation Unified Protector had successfully averted the regime’s efforts to put down the rebellion, but in doing so also significantly contributed to creating the conditions that allowed for the overthrowing of the Libyan government.

The wreckage of a US F-15 fighter jet in Ghot Sultan, LIbya, southeast of Benghazi


The use of no-fly zones as a policy for providing immediate humanitarian relief and civilian protection is strongly supported in the aforementioned data. Operation Provide Comfort and Operation Unified Protector identified imminent humanitarian catastrophes and were able to successfully avert them. Short-term goals articulated by the authorizing documents and statements made by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama were clear, concise, and met without difficulty. However, the data does not support the successful achievement of long-term political stability (see Table 2). In fact, the data reveals the exact opposite of the stated policy preference for the maintenance of territorial integrity and national unity. At the start of Operation Provide Comfort, Bush stated that the US military would not get involved in Iraq’s domestic politics. Yet, the US no-fly zone provided protection for the formation of a politically autonomous region that then experienced a civil war where the former dictator was invited back in to aid one of the belligerent parties. Operation Unified Protector was in direct response to the fear that the Qadhafi regime was about to massacre its own civilians. Obama specifically stated his intention was not to initiate regime change. Despite these statements, the coalition air campaign drastically changed the domestic balance of power allowing a loose alliance of opposition groups to depose the government.

The data correlates no-fly zones and political instability, but does not show a causal relationship. No-fly zones were established to address humanitarian crises that were themselves the byproducts of civil war. In both cases civil wars were already underway at the start of the respective no-fly zones, and in both cases there were brief moments of stability after the completion of operations, followed by relapses into conflict. This study has not discussed the changing policy goals as policymakers reacted to facts on the ground, but instead focuses on strategic goals at the time of implementation as a baseline for measuring outcomes. Furthermore, this study reveals that Benard’s typology for categorizing no-fly zones does not adequately capture the true nature of the conflicts. Operation Provide Comfort deterred regime airpower and posited in all three types, but was unable to prevent the outbreak of Kurdish fighting, as demonstrated in Type 3. Operation Unified Protector not only deterred regime airpower, again captured by all three Types, but also destroyed regime ground assets. It simultaneously provided close air support, as demonstrated in Type 1, but for rebel forces as opposed to coalition troops. The two cases examined in this piece do not fit neatly into any of the types, but rather draw from elements of each.

Table 2. Summary of Findings

[table id=3 /]

Conclusion and Recommendation

A no-fly zone in Syria will only weaken Bashar al-Assad’s regime and may not be possible given Russia’s current deployment. As the US hopes to empower democratic opposition elements, a no-fly zone is likely to aid the Islamic extremist groups it opposes. A successful no-fly zone in Syria requires the deployment of ground troops to guarantee that protected enclaves are not continuously targeted by militant groups. Furthermore, a no-fly zone requires that both the regime and rebel factions are roughly equally degraded, so as to prevent the balance of power from shifting drastically to one side’s advantage with a negotiated settlement being the only real conflict termination strategy short of all-out victory by one side. Pursuing this strategy has become significantly more challenging given Russian intervention in direct support of the regime. While the US and international community have made real progress in negotiating a temporary “cessation of hostilities,” they will need to take a long-term approach to managing relations within the diverse opposition to prevent future conflict.

The no-fly zones examined in Iraq and Libya weakened regime power and allowed opposition groups to gain political control. While the no-fly zones were successfully established to protect innocent lives, they may have caused or extended conflict, leading to further suffering and destabilization. Policymakers must take these long-term outcomes into consideration when advocating for any future use of no-fly zones as intervention strategies.


  1. Alexander Benard, “Lessons from Iraq and Bosnia on the Theory and Practice of No-Fly Zones,” The Journal of Strategic Studies Vol. 27, No. 3 (September 2004): 455-458.
  2. For example, see Tim Eaton, “Should There Be a No-Fly Zone Over Syria?,” BBC News, 12 October 2015.
  3. For example see Karl P. Mueller, Denying Flight: Strategic Options for Employing No-Fly Zones, (Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, 2013), 2.
  4. Daniel R. Lake, “The Limits of Coercive Airpower: NATO’s ’Victory’ in Kosovo Revisited,” International Security Vol. 34, No. 1 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, Summer 2009): 99.
  5. Durbin, Richard J., Tim Kaine, et. al, letter to President Barack Obama, 21 April 2015; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Hillary Clinton Calls for No-Fly Zone in Syria,” MSNBC, 1 October 2015.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Jeremiah Gertler, Jeremiah, Christopher M. Blanchard, et. al, ”No-Fly Zones: Strategic, Operational, and Legal Considerations for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report R41701: 3 May 3 2013), 4-5.
  8. Igor Bobic, “Marco Rubio Would Risk War With Russia in Order to Enforce Safe Zone in Syria,” The Huffington Post, 5 October 2015.
  9. Kenneth M. Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 263.
  10. George H.W. Bush, “Remarks to the American Association for the Advancement of Science” (Washington, DC: United States Government Publisher Office, 15 February 1991), 145.
  11. Micah Zenko, Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2010), 30-31.
  12. George H.W. Bush, “Remarks on Assistance for Iraqi Refugees and a News Conference,” (Washington, DC: United States Government Publisher Office, 16 April 1991).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid; George H.W. Bush, “Remarks at Maxwell Air Force 2015–2016, Volume V 23 Base War College in Montgomery, Alabama” (Washington, DC: United States Government Publisher Office, 13 April 1991).
  16. Bill Park, “Turkey-Kurdish Regional Government Relations After the U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq: Putting the Kurds on the Map?” (Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: U.S. Army War College Press, March 2014), 8; Quil Lawrence, Invisible Nation : How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood is Shaping Irag and the Middle East (New York: Walker & Company, 2008), 65.
  17. Backer, Ralf, and Ronald Ofteringer, “A Republic of Statelessness: Three Years of Humanitarian Intervention in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Middle East Report No. 187/188 (March-June, 1994): 43-44.
  18. Lawrence, Invisible Nation, 38-39.
  19. Maximilian C. Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2012), 55.
  20. Christopher M. Blanchard, ”Libya: Unrest and U.S. Policy” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service Report RL33142, 18 March 2011), 1; Alan J. Kuperman, “A Model Humanitarian Intervention?: Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign,” International Security Vol. 38, No. 1 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, Summer 2013): 109.
  21. Blanchard, “Libya: Unrest and U.S. Policy,” 1.
  22. “In Swift, Decisive Action, Security Council Imposes Tough Measures on Libyan Regime, Adopting Resolution 1970 in Wake of Crackdown on Protestors,” United Nations Security Council, 26 February 2011.
  23. Johannes Theiss, “NATO: The Process of Negotiating Military Intervention in Libya,” Arab Spring (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 333-334.
  24. “Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ on Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, by Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstenations,” United Nations Security Council, 17 March 2011.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Situation in Libya,” (Washington, DC: Office of the Press Secretary, 18 March 2011).
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Blanchard, ”Libya: Unrest and U.S. Policy,” 6-8.
  30. Barack Obama, “Remarks on the Death of Former Leader Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi of Libya” (Washington, DC: United States Government Publisher Office, 20 October 2011).
  31. “Security Council Creates United Nations Support Mission in Libya, Adopting Resolution 900 (2011),” United Nations Security Council, 16 September 2011.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Blanchard, ”Libya: Unrest and U.S. Policy,” 16-28.
  34. “Benghazi US Consulate Attack: Timeline,” BBC News, 16 November 2012.
  35. Dana Ford, “World Powers Agree to ‘Cessation of Hostilities’ in Syria; Outcome Uncertain,” CNN, 12 February 2016.