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José Ramos-Horta Headshot

Syria: Enforce a No-Fly Zone

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As the the UN Brahimi mediation mission seems to be ending the same way as the Annan mission did, a solution that stops short of landing troops or conducting risky targeted air strikes is urgent. The formation of a new opposition coalition to replace the Syrian National Council is an important step in dealing with the divisions that have undermined the movement, and the apparent rise of Islamist influence within the opposition. We can only hope that it halts the opposition's descent into execution of captured government soldiers and even pro-regime civilians.

As the new block has closed the door to negotiations, options for achieving a resolution through dialogue have come to an end. It is time for the regional front-line States with credible military capabilities to consider escalating the pressure on the Assad regime by imposing a no-fly zone over Syria.

For the rest of us, it is also time to ease up on criticism of the United Nations and the major powers, including China and Russia, for not doing enough or for being unhelpful. Such criticism ignores the realities of the climate in which we are trying to solve this debacle. The US and NATO are bogged down in Afghanistan while their European allies have begun to retreat. Both the US and Europe face an unprecedented economic and financial meltdown. They cannot and should not be expected to shoulder the Syria burden by themselves.

If China and Russia were to have changed stance a month ago, or changed today and decided to dump the Assad regime, it is not clear what would happen next, in terms of credible actions that can topple the regime faster. But the country's Arab neighbors can take immediate action and help push this to an end.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have the planes, experienced fighter pilots and ground support systems to undertake an operation such as a no-fly zone. If needed the US and NATO could provide on the ground technical, logistic and intelligence support, and even additional equipment that might be required, while they stay well out of direct involvement.

The Arab League should endorse the no-fly zone, entrust it to these regional four powers, and bring the plan to the UN Security Council for approval. In these circumstances, if a Security Council resolution were required to endorse the no-fly zone, China and Russia -- who have primarily objected to US and/or NATO direct intervention in Syria -- would have the option to abstain.

How would Iran react to such a move against its regional ally the Assad regime? While Iran and Saudi Arabia are virulent rivals, Iran would think twice before it were to move against a regional initiative involving Egypt and Turkey, endorsed by the Arab League and the UN Security Council. Their acquiescence could be obtained through back door diplomacy.

In all the reports and analysis I have read, I have not seen reference to the possible positive role the Syrian army could play in bringing an end to the conflict. When army leaders are persuaded by a sense of honor and self-preservation to withdraw support to a regime, it has historically been a lynch pin in the demise of any well-entrenched dictatorship -- see Egypt in 2011, Indonesia in 1989, even the Philippines when the decades-old Marcos dictatorship was ended in 1986.

Much greater effort should be made by the Syrian opposition and their Arab friends to make contacts with and entice the Syrian army to change sides. Then let them arrange for Assad's exit.

Civilian and military chiefs and soldiers should be reassured that once the Assad family has been offered safe passage out of Syria, there will be no revenge and persecution in the post-Assad Syria. We cannot repeat the grave error committed by the Bush Administration and their Iraqi allies in 2003 when they declared the Iraqi Army an enemy and disbanded the forces, plummeting the country into chaos.

Arab and Muslim nations understandably resent Western intervention in their backyard. They were particularly humiliated when Iraq was invaded and the mighty Iraqi army decimated by US invading forces in 2003 within a matter of days without much of a fight. They do not want a repeat of history, and neither does the US. It is time for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, backed by the Arab League, to move beyond moral and public rhetoric, show real leadership, and intervene to stop the bloodshed in their own region.

The operation will be fraught with real risks. Syria fought wars with Israel, directly or via proxy forces, and has been in a state of war for decades. Its military preparedness should not be underestimated. But it's time for the regional leaders to back rhetoric with action.