Tag: no-fly zone

No Longer a Hypothetical: Russian Plane Shot Down

Earlier today, Turkey, a NATO ally, shot down a Russian jet, killing at least one pilot, and leaving the other in the hands of insurgents on the ground (and possibly also dead). The Turks claim that the Russian jet was operating in Turkish airspace, and was warned away on numerous occasions. Thus, when its F-16 fighter jet attacked the Russian SU-24 bomber, it was a legitimate act of self defense. The Turks have called for a NATO meeting later today to explain their side of the story, and, presumably, game out next steps.

Russia claims that its plane was operating over Syrian airspace. It initially reported that it was downed by ground fire, but has since changed its story. Putin is calling it “a stab in the back,” but may stop short of using it as a pretext for substantially widening a conflict he may already regret having been dragged into. There are conflicting reports about whether Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has canceled a planned meeting in Turkey tomorrow.

This story bears watching, and I’m reluctant to spin out the historical analogies too far. Very few brush fire wars become world wars, and not all allies behave as the allied and entente powers did in July 1914. Plus, technological changes go a long way to explain why the world today is very different from 100 years ago. I have reason to doubt, for example, that a nuclear-armed Germany would have risked war with a nuclear-armed Russia over Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia.

But I nervously tweeted this morning that we might soon appreciate the difference between fighting wars against terrorists and wars against nation-states. We’ve avoided having to think seriously about such things for many years, which may explain the apparent enthusiasm for a no-fly zone over Syria (favored by at least 8 of 11 major presidential candidates). The possibility of Russian jets being shot down, and Russian pilots killed, was dismissed as a hypothetical (Though not by everyone).

It isn’t hypothetical any longer.

The Reckless Proposal to Impose a No-Fly Zone in Syria

Bad foreign policy ideas have a nasty habit of recirculating. One of the worst is the proposal to impose a no-fly zone in Syria to protect rebel forces attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime. President Obama has wisely resisted that scheme, but the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has endorsed it. And in the most recent GOP debate, several candidates, especially Senator Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina, enthusiastically signed-on to the strategy. Only Senator Rand Paul unequivocally opposed it.

Even under normal circumstances, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would be a spectacularly bad idea. Such measures were a prelude of America’s disastrous, full-scale military intervention in Iraq, and a similar danger of escalation exists in this case. Moreover, the move would strengthen the position of the ideologically murky amalgam that opposes Assad. The reality is that even the non-ISIS rebel groups exhibit a disturbing level of radical Islamic influence. Indeed, the largest and strongest anti-Assad faction appears to be al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. It is mystifying why American hawks would want to empower such forces.

But special circumstances in Syria make the no-fly proposal even more dangerous than normal. Russia has intervened in that country and is flying numerous combat missions against rebel units. Establishing a no-fly zone over Moscow’s objections would be extremely provocative. Yet neither Clinton nor the GOP hawks gave any hint that creating the zone should be contingent on Russia’s consent. Indeed, there was an undertone in the debate comments by Rubio and Fiorina that imposing the zone would be an effective way to humiliate Vladimir Putin and make it clear that Russia would not be able to exercise influence in the Middle East.

If that is the nature of no-fly zone proposals, they are extraordinarily reckless. How would we enforce the unilateral no-fly edict?  Would we actually shoot down Russian planes if they dared continue their combat flights?  That would carry the obvious risk that Moscow might respond in kind—and that would bring two nuclear-armed powers to the brink of all-out war. Even if Russia did not directly challenge the United States with aerial combat in Syria, it has other options to retaliate against a U.S. effort to humiliate the Kremlin. Putin could, for example, redouble his military efforts in Ukraine, intensifying that messy conflict. And there is always the chance that he would move militarily against the vulnerable Baltic republics, creating a crisis of credibility for NATO.

There is nothing at stake in Syria that warrants the United States risking such a dangerous confrontation with Russia. Imposing a no-fly zone under the current circumstances is utterly reckless. Anyone who embraces such a scheme should be disqualified automatically from occupying the Oval Office.

Mission Creep in Syria

This week, the United States and Turkey agreed on a deal to expand cooperation in the fight against ISIS, in part through the creation of an ‘ISIS-free zone’ in Northern Syria. The scope of the agreement is unclear, not least because Turkish officials are hailing it as a ‘safe zone’ and a possible area for refugees, while U.S. officials deny most of these claims. U.S. officials are also explicit that the agreement will not include a no-fly zone, long a demand of U.S. allies in the region.

But what’s not in doubt is that the United States and Turkey plan to use airstrikes to clear ISIS fighters from a 68-mile zone near the Turkish border. The zone would then be run by moderate Syrian rebels, although exactly who this would include remains undefined.

Over at the Guardian today, I have a piece talking about the many problems with this plan, in particular the fact that it substantially increases the likelihood of escalation and mission creep in Syria:

“The ambiguity around the ‘Isis-free zone’ creates a clear risk of escalation. It’s unclear, for example, whether groups engaged in fighting the regime directly will be allowed to enter the zone and train there, or only those US-trained and equipped rebels focused on Isis. US officials have been keen to note that Assad’s forces have thus far yielded to American airstrikes elsewhere in Syria – choosing not to use their air defense system and avoiding areas the US is targeting - but that is no guarantee that they would refrain from attacking opposition groups sheltering inside a safe zone.”

The plan is just another step in the current U.S. approach to Syria, which has been haphazard and ill-thought out. The United States is engaged in fighting ISIS while most fighters on the ground want to fight the Assad regime, a key reason for the abysmal recruitment record of the U.S. military’s new train-and-equip programs in Syria. Increased U.S. involvement in Syria risks our involvement in another costly, open-ended civil war.

WSJ Calls for No-Fly Zone in Syria, Acknowledges No-Fly Zone Isn’t Enough

It seems the Wall Street Journal editorial board has yet to identify a conflict in which the United States should not intervene. Today, they again call for U.S. military intervention in Syria and criticize President Obama for his inaction. Their main recommendation? Easy: set up a no-fly zone: 

The U.S. could boost its diplomatic leverage with the rebels and their regional allies by enforcing no-fly zones over portions of Syria. That would help prevent the regime from using its attack jets and helicopter gunships against civilian targets while allowing insurgents to consolidate and extend their territorial gains. It also means we could use limited force in a way that strengthens the hand of rebels we support at the expense of those we don’t. 

The key point here is that the Journal leaves open the possibility of using “limited force” to help the rebels. Indeed, this is what no-fly zones often become: precursors to additional involvement at a later date (think Iraq and Libya). I argued as much last week: 

If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or [no-fly zones] can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. 

In Libya, there wasn’t such an explicit call for a no-fly zone as a means to toppling Muammar Gaddafi. The UN resolution authorizing the no-fly zone did not include “regime change” as a goal, but that’s what it became. In Syria, a no-fly zone would be used explicitly for the purpose of toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But if regime change is the goal, a no-fly zone will not do much to lead us there. They are security-theater, as Ben Friedman has pointed out: “No-fly zones commit us to winning wars but demonstrate our limited will to win them. That is why they are bad public policy.” 

More Calls for Intervention in Syria

Pressure is building on President Obama to involve the United States more deeply in the brutal civil war in Syria that may have claimed as many as 70,000 lives, and created more than a million refugees. Late last week, the editorial board of the Washington Post called for “aggressive intervention by the United States and its allies to protect the opposition and civilians.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) apparently believes that the Post didn’t go far enough because the editorial explicitly ruled out sending U.S. ground troops. He wants the U.S. military to secure suspected chemical weapons caches there. But where Graham is leading few will follow, aside from his frequent co-conspirator, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). The American people are not anxious to send U.S. troops into the middle of yet another civil war in the region.

Some do want the U.S. government to do more, however, and not just the people who sold us the war in Iraq. For example, during a stop in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry made vague references to increasing the flow of arms to the Syrian opposition. Back here in Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) became the latest to call for establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Arms supplied to resistance fighters can be directed against other targets when the regime collapses (or may simply prolong the war if it doesn’t), which is why no-fly zones are seen as the less risky option. They could satisfy the understandable human instinct to be seen as doing something, anything, in the face of enormous human suffering. As such, if President Obama were to institute a no-fly zone, it might forestall an even more costly and risky operation, one that did involve U.S. troops on the ground. 

But no-fly zones often become precursors to additional involvement at a later date. If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or they can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. We are choosing sides, and arguably already have, without a clear sense that the regime that comes after will be an improvement over what came before. We are placing ourselves into the middle of a much wider sectarian dispute taking place throughout the region. 

Claims that the United States has a unique opportunity to shape the political process in Syria are equally misguided. Though we wish otherwise, a U.S. government stamp of approval is likely to undermine the legitimacy of genuine democrats in Syria, to the extent that there are any. And we know that the opposite is true: individuals or groups singled out for criticism, for example the al-Nasra Front, have seen their stature rise. The reason is simple: the American brand has never been lower in the region, and is held in particularly low regard in Syria. 

When I wrote about Syria late last year (here and here), I was reasonably confident that President Obama would not intervene, in spite of the fact that his decision to help the Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Qaddafi established a precedent for a similar regime-change operation in Syria. The key distinctions between the two cases include UN Security Council support for intervention in Libya, but not in Syria, a relatively well-defined mission in Libya, but not in Syria, and a reasonable expectation that the costs of military operations could be kept limited, and would deliver clear results, which was true in Libya, but is not true in Syria. Earlier this week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey threw cold water on the notion that the military could produce an acceptable outcome in Syria. 

The general’s candor is both welcome and refreshing. Although the suffering in Syria is gut-wrenching, the U.S. military lacks the ability to resolve the underlying social and political disputes that are driving the civil war. Indeed, as Ben Friedman pointed out last year, outside intervention might actually prolong such conflicts, or initiate new ones, resulting in even greater loss of life. 

The American people have so far proved unwilling to intervene in Syria, and are particularly resistant to the idea of U.S. troops marching on Damascus. They were similarly disinclined to become involved in Libya, however, and the president ignored the public in that previous case. He should not do so with respect to Syria. And Congress shouldn’t allow it if he tries.

Friday Links

  • When is an entitlement not an entitlement, but a command? When a federal judge contradicts herself, of course.
  • As the Arab League’s influence over its own member states wanes, of course they support the creation of an international no-fly zone over Libya.
  • Of course, there’s really no such thing as a “Social Security trust fund.”
  • Should the United States and Saudi Arabia remain allies? Of course—but Washington should probably re-think the terms of the partnership.
  • Of course, when George W. Bush was president, you couldn’t go anywhere in Washington without seeing an anti-war protest. Where have they all gone?

Tuesday Links