Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has agreed in principle to a new plan from the Arab League that would allow 500 international observers to watch the ongoing protests in the country.
With more than 3,500 people killed since March, an international presence in Syria might be the only way to end Assad's brutal crackdown against popular protests across the country.
However, Assad has reneged on his promises time and again, and the new Arab League plan may be ignored just like the last.
Opposition leaders have called on world powers such as NATO and the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over the country, hoping that limiting the scope of the Syrian Air Force will prevent more deaths, while giving anti-government forces room to maneuver.
IBTimes asked Dilshod Achilov, Assistant Professor of Political Science at East Tennessee State University, and an expert on Middle East politics, about the implications of a no-fly zone.
IB TIMES: Is a NATO- or U.N.-imposed no-fly zone over Syria a possibility at this point?
ACHILOV: At the current stage, a big scale NATO and/or UN-imposed no-fly zone in Syria is a low probability. A no-fly zone would be meaningful to protect civilians if there was a stronghold/headquarters of the Syrian opposition. That is not the case at this moment: the opposition in scattered around the country. It is hard to draw a geographic distinction between the Assad regime's loyalists (and security forces) and the opposition.
In Libya, there was a clear boundary between the West (Tripoli) and the East (Benghazi), which made the no-fly zone meaningful in order to protect the civilians and the opposition movement (rebels). Of course, Libya was a tribal nation and was historically and culturally divided between the East and the West.
Syria is a different story. The opposition is all over Syria. Not surprisingly, Assad is carefully watching the traffic and exit points between major cities so that the citizens do not flee to a certain region in order to establish a stronghold.
IB TIMES: What point will the Syrian uprising need to reach for a no-fly zone to be a real possibility?
ACHILOV: For a no-fly zone to happen, the following conditions will be necessary:
- The opposition, the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, must get organized, cohesive and appeal for international recognition. (Only a few countries have recognized SNC as an official Syrian opposition force).
- A stronghold of Syrian rebels in Northern Syria will be imperative. Army defectors must start navigating their forces into the north.
- Turkey and the Arab League must be on the same page in terms of a possible no-fly zone.
- The U.N., U.S., E.U. and NATO must support the no-fly zone.
- A strong and bold voice in the international community is imperative.
- Russia and Iran must be contained.
Assad knows well that only through physical power can he maintain his political power in Syria. Thus, unfortunately, an armed resistance is the most likely way to move forward.
IB TIMES: Is the rise of the Free Syrian Army making a no-fly zone more or less likely?
ACHILOV: The Free Syrian Army will have to play a crucial role in a possible no-fly zone. The FSA will have to set up defense strategies in northern Syria and coordinate counter-attacks against the regime's forces. A no-fly zone will be meaningful if there is a viable opposition on the ground. Thus, the success of FSA will highly depend on air protection (just like in Libya).
At any rate, FSA faces an uphill battle in this case.
IB TIMES: How would a no-fly zone change the current situation on the ground?
ACHILOV: Unfortunately, it would turn the situation in Syria into a bloody civil war, one far worse than Libya.
A no-fly zone would invite Iran to militarily support its closest ally. Russia would likely increase its naval presence in the Mediterranean to support Syria and protect it from a possible naval blockade.
But in the best-case scenario, a no-fly zone may allow the opposition to launch a comprehensive campaign against Assad. This would raise the national morale and boost the confidence of Syrian citizens to steep up their pressure on the regime.
IB TIMES: Do you see any chance of Assad making concessions or starting a negotiation with the opposition if a no-fly zone or other international actions took place?
ACHILOV: Concessions are unlikely given the fact that the demands of the opposition (and of the international community) are clear: Assad must step down.
Assad may choose to talk to the opposition, but I don't think he will deliver substantive results. Assad is very good diplomat. He may seek talks to win time. He has no intention of stepping down, nevertheless.
Meanwhile, Assad is offering generous economic concessions inside the country (e.g., salary increases, subsidies, etc.) to appease the angry public. However, the issues are beyond economics at this stage.
IB TIMES: Could international sanctions alone be enough to change Assad's strategy?
ACHILOV: The sanctions alone will not deliver substantive results. However, sanctions must still be enacted. The time is ripe for bold actions by the international community. International inaction will keep granting Assad more time, which he desperately needs.
I don't think that a no-fly zone is necessary to topple Assad. But it can strengthen and protect the militarized opposition (FSA) to launch cohesive counter-attacks and thereby speed up the revolution. It is important to highlight that Assad does not need fighter jets to kill civilians. A no-fly zone will not necessarily save more lives down the road.
IB TIMES: Would (or could) a no-fly zone lead to a Libya-like revolution?
ACHILOV: We should not compare Syria to Libya. Even though there are some similarities, Syria is far more complicated.
But, the revolution is already unfolding in Syria. Every revolution we have witnessed thus far has been unique. The Syrian case will certainly be very different than that of Libya.