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.