I don’t often agree with Rand Paul in his approach to national defense and foreign policy (Marco Rubio was exactly correct when he said we can’t have an economy without an effective national defense), but Paul is spot-on in his attack on the no-fly zone advocated not just by Hillary Clinton but also by substantial numbers of his Republican competitors. I wrote about a Syrian no-fly zone last month:
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. . . . 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?
This is doubly true now that it looks like ISIS brought down a Russian passenger jet. Would we stand in the way of Russian retaliation for a direct attack on innocent Russian civilians?
Critically, rejecting a no-fly zone does not mean that we’re demonstrating weakness. As I said before:
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.
No-fly zones were key in stopping genocide in Iraq after Desert Storm, but Syria in 2015 isn’t Iraq in 1991. A competing, potentially hostile great power is involved, and I fail to see how stopping Russian flights over Syria would either protect American national security or be worth the fearsome risk of deadly conflict with an opponent orders of magnitude more dangerous than ISIS. When it comes to the Syrian no-fly zone, Rand Paul is right.