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Will a No-Fly Zone Really Work in Syria?

The Obama administration mulls a no-fly zone in Syria, but will it work?

ByABC News
June 14, 2013, 5:22 PM

June 15, 2013 — -- The announcement that President Obama is planning to step up aid to the Syrian rebels, including sending small weapons and ammunition, is a significant change in the administration's policy on Syria.

But with 90,000 people already killed, a refugee crisis being called the worst in the world, and evidence of Iran and Hezbollah's growing involvement in the crisis, critics question whether the move will be enough to make a difference on the ground.

On Thursday, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration's Syria policy, applauded the decision to provide arms, but called for the U.S. to go further and establish a no-fly zone

"The goal is to end the war. And the only way this war is going to end quickly and on our terms is to neutralize the air assets that Assad enjoys," Graham said on the Senate floor. "We can crater the runways. There are four air bases he uses. We can stop the planes from flying. We can shoot planes down without having one boot on the ground."

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McCain and Graham are not the only ones calling for a no-fly zone. Some of America's allies in the region, including Turkey, also have said they would support the action as way to help strengthen the opposition's position on the ground and allow more humanitarian aid to get through.

But the administration maintains a no-fly zone is not the easy solution some are claiming.

"People need to understand that the no-fly zone is not some type of silver bullet that is going to stop a very intense and, in some respect, sectarian conflict, that it's taking place on the ground," National Security Advisor Spokesman Ben Rhodes told reporters on Friday.

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So what exactly is a no-fly zone?

A no-fly zone is just what the name indicates; it's an action that stops planes, usually military from flying in the skies of a designated area. The idea is to keep the military from a rogue nation from using its airpower to attack other areas in its own territory or beyond.

No-fly zones are usually authorized by international bodies, like the United Nations or NATO, and the air forces of participating countries are authorized to a nation's air capabilities. They can disable runways at air bases, striking at air defense systems and possibly going as far as shooting down any military aircraft violating the no-fly zone.

The effectiveness of the ban hinges on enforcement, as was the case in Libya, where NATO enforced a no-fly zone though it was the U.S. that bore the brunt of the operations.

It was considered a success that gave the opposition the space and time to take control of the country and overthrow Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

Many critics of the administration's Syria policy have questioned why President Obama is so reluctant to push for a no-fly zone in Syria, as well.

The administration has said Syria is very different from Libya.

"It's dramatically more difficult and dangerous and costly in Syria for a variety of reasons," said Rhodes. "In Libya, you already had a situation where the opposition controlled huge portions of the country and you could essentially protect those portions of the country from the air. You do not have the same types of air defense systems that exist within Syria."

Experts say that Syria's air force is more capable than Libya's and, more importantly, has a complex air defense system that could target military aircraft enforcing a no-fly zone. But that doesn't necessarily preclude putting elements of a no-fly zone in place.