- "I worry sometimes that, when people say 'impose a no-fly zone,' there is this almost antiseptic view that this is an easily accomplished military task. It's extraordinarily difficult. Having overseen imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, a force that is vastly inferior in air forces and air defenses to that which exists in Syria, it's a pretty high-risk operation"It first entails -- we should make no bones about it. It first entails killing a lot of people and destroying the Syrian air defenses and those people who are manning those systems. And then it entails destroying the Syrian air force, preferably on the ground, in the air if necessary. This is a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties and increased risk to our own personnel." -- Now-retired four-star General Carter Ham, former commander, U.S. Africa Command, who oversaw U.S. military enforcement of the Libyan no-fly zone in 2011 [CBS News]
- "It is quite frankly an act of war and it is not a trivial matter"I know it sounds stark, but what I always tell people when they talk to me about a no-fly zone is . . . it's basically to start a war with that country because you are going to have to go in and kinetically take out their air defense capability." -- Four-star General Philip Breedlove, NATO's current supreme allied commander, U.S. European Command [Stars and Stripes]
- The New York Times reported that in 2012 General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the White House that imposing a no-fly zone in Syria -- in the Times paraphrasing -- "would require as many as 70,000 American servicemen to dismantle Syria's sophisticated antiaircraft system and then impose a 24-hour watch over the country." [New York Times] (Dismantle being a Times polite euphemism for bombing the bejeezus out of Syria's antiaircraft defenses.)
Readers of the national edition of the June 18, 2015 New York Times were greeted with a dramatic full-page ad featuring a photo of an apparently injured baby fitted with a breathing device and being tended to by a partially visible adult beneath a big, bold-type headline: "PRESIDENT OBAMA, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?" (A partial picture of the ad can be found here.)
In smaller type, under the picture of the baby and the adult, was the message: "Trapped and under chemical attack, the Syrian people are desperate for help."
And below that in slightly smaller type was the risky military operation that the ad's sponsors wanted the reluctant President to undertake. To wit: "A majority of Americans support a No-Fly Zone in Syria to save lives and 1,093,775 people around the world [in an on-line petition] are calling for action now."
The on-line petition cited in the ad also has an urgent headline calling for a "Safe zone for Syrians, now!" The body of the petition demands the establishment of an "air-exclusion zone in Northern Syria, including Aleppo, to stop the bombardment of Syria's civilians and ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those most in need." The petition -- slightly different than the New York Times ad -- was addressed not only to Obama, but also to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron "and other world leaders."
Now it's not surprising to see such an expensive ad in the current political climate in which Syrian war fever has seized much of the U.S. political establishment. A climate in which Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (but not Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump), and every neoconservative and "humanitarian interventionist" and chicken-hawk in creation have, at the very least, called for a no-fly zone in northern Syria as part of a greater U.S. military involvement to remove President Bashar al-Assad.
What stood out about this ad, then, isn't so much the neocon-like call to action -- a move toward a wider war in Syria which could entail even more U.S. and western military air bombardments, as well as additional displacement and death for civilians -- but rather the ad's sponsors.
This ad wasn't the product of a gaggle of bellicose Republicans or acolytes of the Brookings Institution's war-enthusiast-in-chief Michael O'Hanlon -- or even supporters of regime change advocate Hillary Clinton -- offering one of their bold, armchair-military solutions to the many-sided, complex Middle East conflicts.
Rather, the ad and its supporting on-line petition were the handiwork of the Internet phenom activist organization Avaaz.org. With the staggering claimed number of 43.1-million members in 194 countries as of mid-March 2016 (anyone who has ever signed an Avaaz petition is considered by the organization to be a member), the New York City-based Avaaz is easily the largest and most influential Internet-based, international advocacy organization on the planet. (Having myself signed many Avaaz petitions over the years, I am counted as one of those 43 million.)
Avaaz, which means "voice" or "song" in many languages, was started in 2006 and officially launched in 2007 by the U.S. online powerhouse MoveOn.org Civic Action and the little known global advocacy group Res Publica. With initial significant financial backing from -- and some blogger critics allege, continued influence of -- financier and liberal philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations (then called Open Society Institute), Avaaz has grown at a mind-boggling pace each year. Since 2011, the organization has increased six-fold to its current membership of almost 43-million. (The second of our two articles on Avaaz will provide more background on the organization, its key issues, its founders and current officials, and funding sources.)
Although widely regarded as liberal to progressive in its campaigns, Avaaz stands alone on the left as the one major on-line activist organization to call for an escalation of the U.S. military role in Syria -- just as before that it was alone on the left in 2011 in campaigning successfully for a no-fly zone for Libya, with subsequent disastrous consequences for that country. (More about this in a follow-up article.)
For this article, we submitted a series of questions to Avaaz media personnel, with an emphasis on obtaining specifics as to its rationale for its support for no-fly zones in Libya and Syria. These questions included why the organization had not informed its members of the warnings (cited above) of top U.S. generals and other experts about the potential dangers to civilians and military personnel inherent in the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria.
After requests (and reminders) on five occasions in November, December and January, we finally received a response on February 11, but that addressed only a few of our specific questions. The organization ignored our question as to why Avaaz had not presented petition-signers with the potential dangers of a Syrian no-fly zone that the prominent generals had warned of. Our follow-up questions, submitted on February 12, have gone unanswered.
What Avaaz spokesperson Nell Greenberg did tell us is: "When it comes to Syria, millions of Avaaz members have repeatedly over the last six years demonstrated that they believe the world has an obligation to protect civilians in Syria as well as those who have fled the country as refugees. In addition to Avaaz members calling for a targeted no-fly zone back in spring of 2015, Avaaz members have called for diplomacy, negotiations and ceasefire as well as raising over a million dollars for the victims inside and outside Syria and volunteering to house and support refugees displaced by this war."
Avaaz and signers of its no-fly zone petition, "see every human life as equally precious and deserving of protection," Greenberg said, adding: "At the time of the Syria no-fly zone campaign, a majority* of our membership supported the call for a targeted no-fly zone in northern Syria. But there were deep questions and concerns brought up by other members of the Avaaz movement that we did not ignore. A Q and A was written to go along with the campaign that you can find here, which spoke to many of their questions and I think addresses the heart of yours: "http://avaaz.org/en/syria_safe_zone_faq/. To be clear, this Q and A was written by the Avaaz Campaign Director [John Napier Tye] who developed this campaign and is his personal perspective, which is why he signed it. It is not a statement from the Avaaz community." (* A majority of a random sample of 10,000 Avaaz members, not a majority of its entire membership, supported the campaign for a no-fly zone.)