The current situation in Aleppo is catastrophic. The residents of the ancient Syrian city are bombarded continuously by internationally-prohibited barrel bombs and deadly rockets by the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and the ruthless air strikes of his Russian allies. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Russian and Assad regime attacks have resulted in at least 7 massacres during the period of 20 to 29 April, with more than 147 civilians killed, including 27 children. Many of the attacks have targeted civilian areas and essential infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools, markets and water stations.
The nation’s largest city and former economic hub has witnessed this century’s most brutal war for the past five years. Hundreds of thousands of Aleppo’s civilian population have fled to neighbouring countries or displacement camps close to the Turkey-Syria border. The camps, though, have not been safe from the dictators’ brutality. On 5 May, an air strike targeted an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp near the town of Sarmada, in northern Aleppo, near the Turkish border, killing at least 28 civilians among those who thought that they had escaped the violence. The strike is believed to have been carried out by Russia or the Assad regime.
Since the war erupted in Syria, the humanitarian situation has worsened steadily. Multiple international and United Nations initiatives have failed to put an end to it, and the Geneva peace talks have not come up with a resolution thus far. Nevertheless, until the world powers engaged in the war reach a political settlement, the international community must act to reduce the human casualty list.
At this point, the only realistic option for easing the civilian toll in Syria is for the main players — particularly the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — to take united action and impose a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Also known as a safe zone, it is an area in which airspace is protected by neutral air forces to prevent it from being used against civilians by hostile military aircraft. As air strikes and barrel bombs are responsible for killing the vast majority of the civilian casualties in this conflict, a no-fly zone would be a viable strategy to protect them.
In order to implement a no-fly zone in Syria and provide a safe haven for the many desperate civilians in the country, international leadership must be demonstrated, principally by the United States, to mobilise European and regional allies to enforce the zone.
The proposal would not only protect civilians and refugees fleeing from daily attacks, but would also contribute to the establishment of a fair ceasefire or cessation of hostilities, with strong emphasis on fair. If nothing else, the Assad regime – which is the least interested in peace and a political solution – would be unable to violate any truce without a suitably robust response from the international coalition enforcing the no-fly zone. Once the regime air strikes against civilians are stopped in the north, the US-led coalition to fight the extremists of Daesh can be given priority and the capability to counter the group and other terrorist factions more efficiently.
The likelihood of implementing a no-fly zone has decreased as the war has progressed, especially with the Russian intervention in Syria and its increasing involvement. A zone should have been implemented at a much earlier stage, but it is needed now more than ever. Firm, immediate action is needed, for if the war is not contained and forced to an end, the consequences will spread beyond the borders of Syria into a multifaceted crisis threating international peace and security, and the existing balance of power.
While a no-fly zone will not end the war in Syria on its own, it will help to contain it, limit Russian military attacks against civilians and push the political process towards concrete discussions with the potential for peaceful results.
In order to address and proceed with peace talks effectively, a relatively peaceful environment for civilians in Syria is required. The Damascus regime, with support from its allies, continues to break internationally-brokered ceasefires, as demonstrated most recently by the events in Aleppo. To deal with the tenacious regime at the negotiations table, the world should not ask the dictatorship to respect the rules, but rather force it to accept no other option but ending the war politically by eliminating any possibility for Assad to achieve victory through military means.
The war in Syria has not only destabilised the Middle East, but also changed the balance of power internationally. Any serious discussion about ending the war must start by addressing the humanitarian crisis. The lack of serious help for the civilian population in Syria will not only contribute to the decline of Western influence in the region, but will also eventually boost the threat posed to regional and European stability.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.