WASHINGTON — Following the First Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. imposed a no-fly zone over Kurdistan in northern Iraq, effectively establishing an autonomous region for the Kurds who had been subjected to the worst abuses of Saddam Hussein, including his use of chemical weapons that killed thousands. Syria poses other problems, specifically the fact that the U.S. has two enemies there: the brutal Assad regime and al Qaeda rebels. Still, the Kurdistan solution provides a roadmap for a Syrian solution.
Recognizing the existence of two enemies is crucial in defining the objective. It defies logic to strike one enemy if it benefits another enemy, which is what would happen if the U.S. and its allies attack military targets loyal to Assad. True, moderate rebel forces would benefit, but so would al Qaeda, an enemy America has been fighting even before 9/11, when its operatives turned American commercial airliners into devastating missiles.
Two enemies require a two-enemy solution. Following the Kurdistan example, the U.S. and its allies should carve out an area of Syria already under rebel control and establish it as a no-fly zone. This could be accomplished with significantly less risk than trying to create a countrywide no-fly regimen that would subject coalition forces to Assad’s substantial anti-aircraft defenses. Further, such a countrywide regimen would benefit moderate and al Qaeda rebels alike.
The second stage of the two-enemy plan would include providing arms, food, housing, and medical care for the moderate rebels and their families. The more difficult, but essential, part of the plan would entail the expulsion of al Qaeda rebels from the no-fly sanctuary. Most recently, this concept was employed in rebel-held eastern Libya, which led to the toppling of another brutal dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. There, the cleansing of the area of al Qaeda rebels was less successful, and Libya has paid an ongoing price for that lapse. However, the Libyan campaign proved what could be accomplished without inserting U.S. ground forces.
By defining the objective – the defeat of both enemies in Syria – and applying the lessons of Kurdistan and Libya, the U.S. and its allies have an opportunity to achieve a remarkable victory while saving thousands of Syrian lives at the least risk to U.S. and coalition lives.
It is important to fully define that victory. It would not simply be the establishment of a moderate regime in Syria. Such a victory would be a major setback to Assad’s allies, Iran and its terrorist minions in Hezbollah. This, in turn, would help stabilize neighboring Lebanon and significantly contribute to a lasting peace between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries, including Syria.
There are great stakes and a fleeting opportunity at a play, and recent history provides a solution, a two-enemy solution.