3 no-fly zone #FAILS: Why they rarely go according to plan

Two US F-15 fighter planes at Incirlik airbase near the southern Turkish city of Adana ©
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call for a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Syria is a risky strategy, going by historical precedents. Since their introduction in the ’90s, there have been some significant fails.

Although it may sound like a way to de-escalate conflict, the zones lead to increased risk for full blown war and can be used as a way to progress foreign policy under the cover of providing respite for a beleaguered civilian population.

Libya 2011

The US and UN Security Council called for a NFZ to be implemented by the US, UK, and France in Libya.

Russia, China, Brazil, India, and Germany abstained from Resolution 1973. India said it could “exacerbate an already difficult situation for the people of Libya”.

Although portrayed as a NFZ, it was used to offer assistance to the rebels, while Gaddafi partook in a ceasefire.

The coalition engaged in airstrikes against the country’s military, including a NATO attack which killed one of Gaddafi’s sons and three grandchildren.

“They immediately became the air force of the rebel forces. And, in fact, the war itself had plenty of brutality - violent militias, attacks on Africans living in Libya, all sorts of things. The end result is just to tear Libya to shreds,” historian and political activist Noam Chomsky said.

READ MORE: ‘NATO has bombed Libya back to Stone Age’

Bosnia and Herzegovina 1993-1995

When Bosnia separated from Yugoslavia in March 1992, civil war broke out between the Muslims, Croats and Serbs living in the former federal republic. In September, after an Italian airplane carrying humanitarian aid was shot down, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 781, preventing unauthorized military flights in Bosnian airspace.

By 1993, there had been 500 violations. The Council then passed Resolution 816, which allowed UN members to “take all necessary measures” to ensure NFZ compliance.

NATO took upon itself to enforce the NFZ. In February 1994, the Cold War-era alliance committed its first act of war, by shooting down four Bosnian Serb airplanes. By April, NATO airplanes were being called in to carry out airstrikes against the Serbs, culminating in the August 1995 ‘Operation Deliberate Force,’ a full-scale military intervention in the conflict.

The operation had “inadequate authority and resulted in air forces not being given authority to assist in key situations”.

By December 1995, more than 100,000 sorties had been flown.

Iraq 1991-2003

The US, UK, France and Turkey enforced a 1991 NFZ in what was said an apparent effort to prevent the Kurds from being attacked by Saddam Hussein’s military.

The countries invoked Resolution 688 to authorize the operations, which the UN Secretary General at the time later called “illegal”.

In 1991, Royal Airforce pilots complained they had been forced to turn back to their base, so that Turkey could bomb the Kurds, going against their supposed role.

The Washington Post also reported US pilots receiving messages of “Turkish Special Mission inbound.”

One pilot said, “You'd see Turkish F-14s and F-16s inbound, loaded to the gills with munitions. Then they'd come out half an hour later with their munitions expended.”

He recalled seeing “burning villages, lots of smoke and fire".

The Post reported US aircraft accidentally bombed a group of shepherds when a water trough was mistaken for a missile launcher.

In 1996, the US had flown 42,000 sorties in total.

When two Kurdish factions were in disagreement, the KDP asked the Iraqi military for assistance. Saddam sent troops and the US military launched 44 cruise missiles in Operation Desert Strike.

Egypt said the US had no right to prevent Iraqi forces from acting in their own land.

The zones did not help to secure the disarmament of Iraq, as officials expelled US arms inspectors in 1997 and twice in 1998. Inspections were suspended until 2002, despite the NFZ being at its strictest from 1998 onwards.  

"We just fly missions and drop bombs from time to time because we've been doing it for 10 years and no-one can stop us from doing so," retired Army Col Andrew Bacevich said.