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Syria No-Fly Zone Questions & Answers



After a week of devastating bombing in Aleppo, the Avaaz community chose to renew its call for a no-fly zone to protect civilians in northern Syria. Nearly 70% of Avaaz members supported this call, and just 5% opposed. Over 1.5 million Avaaz members across the world have joined the campaign. But the team is also receiving a number of thoughtful concerns that merit deliberative responses. The best way to sustain the deep trust that our community and our work require, is to engage with these critiques. Avaaz is a member-driven, global community and discussing these issues is absolutely necessary to ensure that we see all sides, to get it right.

Here are the three major concerns that are being raised:
  1. Isn’t a call for a no-fly zone just pushing for more war?
  2. What about the danger of US-Russia confrontation?
  3. Is Avaaz serving the US’s imperialist interests in the Middle East?
First, some background on what’s happening. The overall human toll of the war is devastating. More than 400,000 killed Over 11 million people driven from their homes. More than half the country’s hospitals damaged or destroyed and millions of children out of school. This war has given rise to a terror organization in control of entire regions and helped create the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Since the outset of the conflict, the US and allies have backed some rebel groups, training and arming them, with regional allies. Their efforts have largely failed. At the same time, Russia has backed the Assad regime with arms, funds, and diplomatic protection at the UN. But a year ago, Russia became directly engaged militarily and is now conducting aerial assaults on Aleppo and elsewhere. Russians airstrikes alone are said to have killed 3,800 civilians.

For the last two weeks, Syrian and Russian planes have been bombing Eastern Aleppo, held by armed rebel groups since 2012. This followed the collapse of a recent US-Russia led ceasefire. According to the UN, hundreds of civilians have been killed over the last few weeks, including over 100 children. Potable water and food are in short supply, hospitals have been repeatedly targeted, and an aid convoy carrying desperately need supplies to the city was deliberately hit. The UN’s humanitarian chief just called the city a “living hell”. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called the city “worse than a slaughterhouse” and spoken of war crimes.

Is the call for a no-fly zone pushing for more war?

The simple answer is no. A no-fly zone is the international community’s last, best chance to prevent aircraft from bombing civilian centers and save lives in Aleppo.

The U.N. Security Council has repeatedly reaffirmed that all states have a Responsibility to Protect people from mass atrocities. This legal doctrine was born from the history of terrible genocides and war crimes stretching from the Holocaust, through to Rwanda. It states that if a government is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, or worse is perpetrating atrocities itself, then under international law it compromises its sovereignty. To protect civilians, other states can use diplomacy, sanctions, and as a last resort, military intervention. Russia, China, France, the United States, the UK, and many other states have endorsed this civilian protection. This is the basis which grounds this call for a no-fly zone.

Dozens of Syrian doctors, Syrian and international humanitarian groups on the ground, and the Nobel Peace Prize nominated civil defence group, the White Helmets, have all been calling for international force to protect civilians including a 'no bombing zone'. After the recent Aleppo attacks, the Syrian Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations issued this appeal: “For the survival of our patients and staff we plead for No Fly Zones over Aleppo”.

A no-fly zone, air exclusion zone, or no bombing zone would mean an international coalition of military forces is deployed with the threat to down planes that try to bomb northern Syria. As with any military mission, a no-fly zone may endanger the pilots enforcing it, or Assad forces trying to break it. But the aim is that the warning in itself would be a deterrent to airstrikes, and therefore if done well, it might not cost a single life, and will save many.

After intensive consultation with diplomats, regional experts, and Syrians it is widely agreed that a no-fly zone not only could save tens of thousands of civilians’ lives, but ultimately can help bring the warring parties to the table to enforce future agreements. It will signal to them that the world will finally act to stop this carnage. Lastly, US and allied aircraft are already patrolling airspace in northern Syria, as part of the anti-IS coalition, so a no-fly zone would not require significant new deployments, but would reinforce global efforts to counter violent extremism by protecting civilians in northern Syria.

What about Russia and the danger of escalation?

Russia’s steadfast support for Assad, and the breadth of its military operations, is the single greatest impediment to civilian protection and peace talks. Although Russia claims to be pursuing a successful anti-terrorism strategy, reports from the ground underscore that the majority of Russian strikes are not aimed at ISIS. As long as Assad has the backing of Russia’s firepower, he continues to believe he can bomb the Syrian people to submission. The no-fly zone could be the fastest route to de-escalation.

Already the US and Russia successfully pursued deconfliction and that must continue as part of the effort to uproot extremist forces. A no-fly zone will not threaten Russia’s legitimate interests or infringe on Russian sovereignty, it simply establishes a clear boundary that the international community is united to stop Syrian aircraft flying in excluded areas. The aim is that it will circumscribe Russian action - if Syrian forces heed the warning, Russia will not risk bearing sole responsibility for attacks. A clear counterweight to Syrian and Russian aggression could prevent war crimes and create leverage for a diplomatic process.

No one wants to risk dangerous escalation between major military powers, and it is a risk. But inaction and the status quo are already fuelling a global terror threat. And to permit the slaughter of countless innocents without even the threat of accountability dangerously erodes our global governance infrastructure, and creates a terrifying precedent for people everywhere as despotic populism is rising.

Is Avaaz cheerleading for American imperialism?

Again, a resounding no. Avaaz is a 43-million member community that serves a mission to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want. That is our heartbeat. And in service to that mission, Avaaz does not accept donations from governments, corporations or foundations -- we are completely member-funded.

Avaaz members live in every corner of the world, and our work serves the hope of our global community -- not the narrow interests of any one country. Our largest national membership is not in the US or any country of Western Europe, but in Brazil with almost 10 million members. And we have over a million members across the Middle East and North Africa, 845,000 in Russia, and 41,000 from Iran.

Over the last decade this community has campaigned regularly and tirelessly to confront forces of imperialism in the Middle East. We’ve campaigned to stop the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, to support the self-determination and dignity of Palestinian people, and to back US-Iranian negotiations. Two of the first campaigns we ever ran called for an end to the Iraq war and a ceasefire in the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Given the track record of the US and western powers in the region, including arming Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen, the bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan, and drones that have killed civilians, it makes sense to have hesitations about calling for this kind of engagement.

But there are no easy choices here, and this no-fly zone is neither the military intervention in Libya that forced regime change, nor the deceitful “pre-emptive war” doctrine advocated by neo-conservatives looking to remake and dominate the Middle East. It's a call for an international effort, with a clear objective: to stop the bombing of civilians immediately. It is based on a UN resolution which expressly prohibits attacks on civilians (UNSCR 2254).

This campaign is not just to the US. We are calling on France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Brazil, Spain, and India to act. Some of these countries have already advocated a no-fly zone, and all have spoken out for protection of civilians in Syria. It also calls on the UN General Assembly to authorise civilian protection measures based on the Uniting for Peace resolution given the inability of the Security Council to articulate and enforce peace or security in Syria.

***

Ultimately the question is what responsibility, do we sense we have to the families caught in this cruel war. What shared humanity and solidarity do we feel for the millions of people like us that are right now struggling desperately to find shelter, to feed and clothe their children, and to simply survive another day of horrific violence. A supermajority of Avaaz members believe they deserve real protection.

You may have decided to leave Avaaz when we launched this campaign, and if our values really don't line up, then that's for the best. But if you see every human life as equally precious and deserving of protection, we hope you'll stay engaged, and keep bringing your perspective. None of us have a handle on the absolute truth, and we need to keep listening to each other, and engaging each other, to get it right. Please let us know if there's anything in this message that we got wrong.

With respect and appreciation,

The Avaaz Team

Previous Avaaz Syria campaigns: The Avaaz community supported civilians and non-violent activists to document human rights abuses, and gave millions of dollars for food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies and to put refugee children in school. We campaigned to stop arms dealers from sending weapons to the country, called for sanctions, and then repeatedly urged the UN to help stop the fighting. More than a million of us from across the world called on the US and Iran to come together to help craft a negotiated solution, and then again backed UN-sponsored negotiations. This community has worked tirelessly to stop the war, but the crisis continues and is spreading.