Vladimir Putin’s decisive move into Syria has caused politicians on both sides of the aisle to scramble for a response. Republicans want to demonstrate strength, to show that they can stand up to Russia, while Hillary Clinton has to show how she’ll change course from Obama-administration policies that are undeniably failing on a mass scale. And so candidate after candidate is now on record — they want American pilots to enforce a “no-fly zone” over Syria.
Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina each want to establish a safe zone over Syria — and enforce it against the Russians, even to the point of shooting down Russian aircraft if they enter protected airspace. Hillary Clinton has broken with the Obama administration and supports a no-fly zone over Syria as well, but it’s less clear whether she’d be willing to escalate to direct military confrontation with Russia. In the debate last night, she indicated that she wanted Russia to be “part of the solution” in Syria, but she also said that she’d make it “very clear to Putin” that it’s “not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos.”
Yet a no-fly zone would represent a serious strategic mistake. First, let’s state the obvious: Any no-fly zone that included Russia as “part of the solution” would be wholly ineffective. Russia would simply continue its bombing runs. Grounding only Assad’s air force and not Russia’s would be useless. Any meaningful no-fly zone has to be enforced against Russia.
That decision — let’s be perfectly clear — would move a great-power conflict from “possible” to “probable.” I don’t say this often on foreign-policy matters, but Rand Paul is fundamentally right. A no-fly zone is an unacceptable risk. Putin clearly views Assad’s survival as vital to Russia’s national interests. Even now, a Syrian, Hezbollah, Iranian, and Russian coalition is massing for a significant ground offensive. Would Putin let that offensive flounder simply because Americans told him not to support his troops and his allies? Or would he instead put American will to the test, resulting in direct aerial combat, lost lives, and a geopolitical incident that would not be easy to confine or control?
And for what strategic purpose? There is simply no allied force on the ground that can defeat Assad and ISIS and al-Qaeda. Our best allies, the Kurds, are geographically confined to the north, and there is no prospect that they could or would spearhead an offensive south to Damascus. The Kurds don’t want to run Syria. They want to protect their homeland.
#share#Nor would a no-fly zone necessarily stem the tide of Syrian migrants to Europe. Ground combat creates refugees even without close air support. Moreover, many of the migrants aren’t fleeing directly from Syria. They’re people who are already secure from the fighting, in safe zones in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, who are seeking greater security and stability in Europe. Indeed, vast numbers of the “Syrians” aren’t from Syria at all.
A new president must be willing to take risks, but those risks must be in the service of a coherent strategy that offers a viable opportunity to materially improve the facts on the ground. For the United States, that means redoubling our efforts in Iraq, where there are no Russian forces, to defeat ISIS and snatch Baghdad from Iranian (and Russian) influence and control. I fear that our political leaders are focusing on the wrong nation. Decisive defeat in Iraq would deal ISIS a powerful blow, undermining its claim to a true caliphate and deterring future recruits who are convinced it’s divinely ordained to humiliate and defeat the United States. Defeat sucks the lifeblood from jihadists, and defeating them in Iraq would do much to reverse the mistakes of the Obama years.
#related#Moreover, we can and must continue — and step up — aerial attacks against ISIS in Syria and in support of Syrian Kurds. Instead of a no-fly zone, maintain a “we-fly zone,” where we aggressively protect our Kurdish allies and strike ISIS to degrade its strength and prevent it from reinforcing Iraq. In other words, American planes should remain on-mission when entering Syrian airspace and not automatically retreat when Russian planes get within 20 miles. Yes, staying on-mission presents a risk, but it is a materially different risk from that of telling Putin’s pilots to leave or be shot down. Instead, we would be telling Putin’s pilots not to interfere with our mission, not to create their own no-fly zone over the territory of our mutual enemies.
As I’ve written before, the best available American strategy leaves Putin to his Syria war (where he may well find himself in a costly quagmire), restores American power and prestige in Iraq, protects the Kurds, and breaks up the emerging Lebanon-to-Iran axis of Russian and Iranian control. We can accomplish that mission without shooting down a single Russian plane and thus without risking great-power conflict on behalf of allies who cannot and will not bring us victory on the ground.