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Even After Paris, A Syrian No-Fly Zone Is A Foolish Idea

Obama ISIS

As evidenced by Tuesday night’s Republican Presidential debate, as well as previous comments made on the campaign trail, several Republican candidates for President have endorsed the idea of a no-fly zone even as Russia continues to fly its own bombing missions over Syria. Yesterday, for example, Lindsey Graham repeated his endorsement of the idea in an appearance on a local radio station in New Hampshire, going so far as to suggest that American pilots should shoot down Russian jets that violate the no fly zone. Graham isn’t alone in his enthusiasm for a no-fly zone, though. He’s joined in that position by candidates such as Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich. Support for the idea of a no-fly zone is not limited to the Republican Party, though, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that she supports a Syrian no-fly zone in yet another split on policy from her former boss.

In reality, as Daniel Larison argues, support for a no-fly zone at this point should be something that disqualifies someone from being President because of the incredibly bad judgment it displays:

Syria hawks are prepared to risk conflict with Russia to defend proxies in a civil war in which the U.S. has nothing at stake. Even by the usual standards of interventionist hubris, this is remarkably dangerous for the U.S. It is also completely unnecessary. It was already a mistake to back any side in the Syrian civil war, and it would compound the error to risk a major war to come to their defense. Indeed, the whole point of supplying proxies with weapons rather than intervening directly is to limit the risks and costs for the U.S., but hawks in Washington are easy eager to find a way to increase both.

Graham complains that it isn’t right “to entice people to come to a fight, train and equip them, side with them on their cause, and sit back and watch them being slaughtered.” I agree that it isn’t right to do that, but then the responsibility for that error lies with the people such as Graham that urged the U.S. to do the enticing and taking sides.

Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter makes a similar argument:

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.

And General John Allen, former Commander of U.S. Central Command and until recently the American envoy to the Anti-ISIS coalition, made similar points in a recent CNN interview:

On the topic of Syria, Allen threw cold water on the idea of a no-fly zone, despite several presidential candidates advocating for the move.

Allen said the United States has examined establishing a no-fly zone over the conflict-torn nation, but said “now is not the time to seriously consider it” if conditions aren’t suitable.

While he didn’t specify the exact nature of the unsuitable conditions and whether they applied at this point, he gave no indication that the United States thought it made sense to proceed with a no-fly zone in the immediate future.

“It’s not just a no-fly zone in a place or … whether it’s in the air or on the ground. It’s also a matter of timing as well,” Allen said.

“The intricacies and the complexities and the cost, frankly, in terms of resources, additional resources, of a no-fly zone or a safe zone are not insignificant,” Allen said. “And the question then becomes: What do we want to accomplish with them? And if the conditions are not suitable right now for what we want might want to accomplish, then now is not the time to seriously consider it.”

The idea of a no-fly zone in Syria, which was always tied into the idea of supporting in some way or another some mythical band of “moderate” Syrian rebels has never really made sense. Primarily, this is because the idea that there ever really have been a segment of the rebelling against the Assad regime that was “moderate,” reliable, and capable of being a real military force doesn’t seem to square with reality. We have learned, for example, that the arms supplied to these “moderates” ended up in the hands of radical groups, a practice that continues to this day.  It was also reported last year that one faction of this “moderate” coalition sold American journalist Steven Sotloff, to ISIS at some point after he was captured. Sotloff was eventually beheaded in one of the infamous propaganda videos that ISIS released last year. More importantly, there were experts saying that the plan to arm these rebels could not work from the beginning. Their warnings now seem prophetic given the fact that the train and equip program, which has largely been abandoned, was  a demonstrable failure, especially since we learned that no more than sixty, and perhaps as few as five, actual fighters have been successfully trained by the American-sponsored program. Given that the rebels weren’t reliable, the idea of a no-fly zone, with the risks it would have attended, was simply untenable.

If the no-fly zone never made sense in the beginning of the Syrian conflict, it certainly doesn’t make any sense now. For one thing, such a zone would do nothing to combat ISIS since ISIS has no air power to speak of at all. Instead, the effort would have been directed toward Syrian forces fighting rebel groups, a move that would have highlighted the incoherent nature of American policy in Syria which purports to be seeking both to combat ISIS and bring about the downfall of the Assad regime, with all the chaos that would result from that, chaos that would likely benefit ISIS the most. Now, though, the skies over Syria would include Russian jets engaged in their own campaign against anti-Assad rebels. A no-fly zone would mean having to deal with those Russian jets, and would lead to an inevitable showdown with the Russians that seems entirely unnecessary under the circumstances. The suggestion from someone like Senator Graham, who really ought to know better notwithstanding the fact that he is a hawk or long standing, that American jets should consider shooting at, and presumably shooting down Russian jets over Syria is utterly insane and would lead to consequences that are completely unnecessary and would completely be the fault of the American President who implemented it. For that reason, Larison and Carpenter are right. No candidate who endorses the idea of a no-fly zone in Syria under present circumstances should be considered a serious candidate for President. Unfortunately, it seems likely that whomever win the nomination will be someone who has endorsed this idea.

In the wake of the weekend’s event in Paris, there are strong impulses from all sides, and from many countries, to “do something” about the situation in Syria in general and the ISIS threat specifically. Even accepting the idea that something must be done about ISIS now that it’s become clear that they have the means to carry out a Mumbai-style attack in a major Western city, though, does not mean that we should not carefully consider our options before moving forward. In this case, there isn’t any rational argument in favor of a no-fly zone over Syria, and plenty of arguments against it.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Tim says:

    Doug,

    Support for the idea of a no-fly zone is limited to the Republican Party, though, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that she supports a Syrian no-fly zone

    Shouldn’t that read “is not limited” in the above?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. gVOR08 says:

    Larison makes the key point that everyone should keep in mind through the next few months. Syria is

    a civil war in which the U.S. has nothing at stake.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 1

  3. @Tim:

    Yes

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. C. Clavin says:

    If this is the most ridiculous suggestion, that comes out of the atrocity in Paris, we will be good.
    It won’t be.
    Trump: close all the Mosques.
    Cruz: stop the refugees. (Cruz’s family were refugees)
    Bush: declare war on Islam. (In direct contradiction to his brother, who started this mess, and was specific that we were not at war with Islam) (also, there are 1.6B muslims in the world…do we want to start a shooting war with 1.6B Muslims?)
    The next few weeks and months are going to be a struggle between jingoism and rationality…I suspect rationality will lose.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2

  5. Slugger says:

    Russian jets are targeting ISIS. Raise your hand if you think we should be stopping them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  6. Tyrell says:

    “Speak softly, carry a big stick”
    Keep your hand close to the vest. Do not tell your enemy what you are going to do.
    Patience and surprise are the best strategies.
    “Strike while the iron is hot”
    Box the enemy in, set the trap, attack from two sides.
    Study the masters: Washington, Sherman, Jackson, Stuart, Patton, Gavin, Rommel, Lawrence.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 8

  7. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @C. Clavin: With regard to Cruz, the situation is completely different. HIS refugee father is a Spanish/Causasian Cuban, not Mestizo, so he counts a European. Additionally, Cruz’s mom is a citizen of the US, so Cruz’s immediate family doesn’t apply to his plan at all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. C. Clavin says:

    @Tyrell:
    Gadzooks, man…are you suggesting our startegy should be based upon tired idioms that you just happen to remember?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Rationality ≠ Passivity.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  10. Mu says:

    I think the thought process goes like this: We impose a no-fly zone. That humiliates the Russians (big plus). That will lead to ISIS (meh) taking out Assad (big plus). Then we get to invade Syria and kill ISIS (big plus). So it’s three plus to one meh, and they get their war which they think will give them an important competence bonus with the voters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  11. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Of course not…but when we respond…how?
    I hear bomb, bomb, bomb…from all the promoters of the Iraqi war…so I know it’s the wrong course of action.
    And I see all the Republican Governors closing their states to Syrian refugees…so I know that’s the wrong course of action.
    So how do we respond wisely?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I hear bomb, bomb, bomb…from all the promoters of the Iraqi war…so I know it’s the wrong course of action.

    An action is logical or not, effective or not. The source from which the argument comes is mostly irrelevant.

    In the ME I think we should do largely as we’ve done, avoiding invasion, containing and degrading.

    The issue of how to respond to attacks in the West is a separate matter not limited to ISIS. I think massive, catastrophic retaliation is the proper response.

    In short: avoid invasion, continue targeted bombing, and when they attack in the West, obliterate a target they cannot stand to see obliterated. Raqqa comes to mind. The French could do it with a small nuke, or we could do it with B1s and B52s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 9

  13. Grewgills says:

    Tyrell, you need more cliches.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:
    We’ve already bombed ISIS some 2000 times…in over 8000 sorties.
    How many is annihilation going to take?
    And how many more terrorists will we create in the process? Iraq created how many Bin Ladens?
    I just don’t see it as efficient or effective.
    Emotionally satisfying…but counter-productive.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. Deserttrek says:

    either kill everyfreakingbody like WWII or do nothing .. pussy footing and worrying about collateral damage is the way to lose

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  16. Andre Kenji says:

    You don´t win counterinsurgencies wars only by bombing the enemy. That did not work out in Vietnam.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:

    It would not be even remotely “emotionally satisfying,” it would be a morally-appalling atrocity that future generations of undergrads would condemn. But it would probably work.

    Using drones to hit carefully-identified targets is not bombing, it’s high-tech sniper work. We’re trying – yet again – to fight with scalpels despite a history of losing with scalpels and winning by overwhelming force. We’re the people with the biggest “gun” in history and we’re fighting this supposed war with nothing worse than brass knuckles.

    Sherman’s March 150 years ago, Dresden and Hiroshima 70 years ago, Mutual Assured Destruction until 1989ish, and now we’re supposed to engage in an endless slap-fight where one stray bomb is all it takes to get everyone freaked out? And we’re still whining that the NSA can record our phone calls? And God forbid ISIS gets hold of one of our pilots because my friends on the Left will be calling for immediate surrender.

    It’s bizarre. I don’t get it. We are buying ourselves decades of terrorism because whatever happens to ISIS the essential reality of asymmetric warfare remains and we’ll get son of ISIS and grandson of Al Qaeda as our civil liberties erode and we bit-by-bit surrender our way of life and cringing becomes our new normal.

    You cannot be a world power, you cannot be Rome, without some element of sheer intimidation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 10

  18. Jeron says:

    The adverse effects of an indiscriminate attack on the Middle East could push allies into the hands of China and Russia.

    When they reference the geopolitical game they talk about it like it was a chess game, where every move can change the landscape entirely. It would not be like checkers which is a more straightforward game.

    When playing chess you try to guess what moves your opponent will make. It’s not just about what moves you would be willing to make. And the initiative can change hands very easily. Meaning that maintaining the initiative can be less adverse than trying to go for the kill and ceding the initiative to the opponent at the same time. Because a couple of moves later you could be the one trying to defend it.

    One of the advantages of having the initiative is that you try to restrict what moves your opponent can make in response to one of your own moves. Cede the initiative and all of a sudden your opponent gains a larger variety of moves to choose from.

    One could argue that for a long time America has enjoyed the advantages of having the initiative. And move after move, very little has come out of it. Now that Europe is being threatened, the initiative has perhaps started to switch to the other side instead.

    To expect that the Middle Eastern countries do more to help out may be a foolish idea. After all, those countries are but pawns in this geopolitical game. Maybe Obama has been trying to change the game a little bit, but all the inertia has made it impossible to do so. As though one would turn their back at the Middle East at their own peril.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  19. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    In short: avoid invasion, continue targeted bombing, and when they attack in the West, obliterate a target they cannot stand to see obliterated.

    That’s absolutely idiotic. They don’t have a target they can’t stand to see obliterated. Destroy their host and, like parasites, they’ll just move on to the next one.

    Destroying Raqqa? Raqqa is filled with innocent men, women and children whom Daesh has conquered and whom the Islamists themselves would happily slaughter. Fanatical death cults don’t generally, you know, get all too frightened by the prospect of mass casualty events — it’s what they want.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  20. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    And God forbid ISIS gets hold of one of our pilots because my friends on the Left will be calling for immediate surrender.

    Fight that strawman, Michael! Punch ’em good!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  21. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    as our civil liberties erode and we bit-by-bit surrender our way of life and cringing becomes our new normal.

    So we should abandon our civil liberties and betray our values and way of life now, so that this might not perhaps happen at some unspecified point in the future?

    Hey, perhaps we can also “reform” Social Security while we’re at it…..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  22. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Sherman’s March 150 years ago, Dresden and Hiroshima 70 years ago,

    Sherman’s March didn’t win the Civil War. The destruction of Dresden didn’t win World War II in the European theatre. Hiroshima didn’t win World War II in the Pacific theatre. These (excepting Sherman’s March) were largely spectacular, mass casualty events that killed a whole bunch of innocent civilian men, women and children but did nothing to erode the ability of the enemy militaries to maintain the fight in the field. Murdering Southern and German and Japanese civilians didn’t win those wars — murdering their soldiers and sailors did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  23. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @C. Clavin: I think he’s looking for the approach of an ancient leader whose name I forget about whom the key aphorism is “They made a desert and called it peace.” In that case, Raqqa may not be a big enough carnage.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. Dave Schuler says:

    That’s Tacitus, quoting the Briton chieftain, Calgacus, about the Romans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  25. Lit3Bolt says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    We have always been at war with Strawmansia..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  26. anjin-san says:

    @Tyrell:

    “Speak softly, carry a big stick”

    This expression originated in Africa…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. stonetools says:

    I don’t think a no fly zone is advisable at this time.It’s been considered by the Administration and rejected. I would argue everybody to read the transcript of Obama’s press conference in Turkey today.HIs calm, considered responses to the heated questions of the press, who apparently are looking for the same kind of magic bullet Michael and others want, is a model of what we want in a wartime President.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  28. Tyrell says:

    @anjin-san: Thanks. That is interesting. I will look further into that. I always was told that Teddy Roosevelt came up with that; the hero of San Juan Hill, the Rough Rider, the Trust Buster.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Rafer Janders says:

    @Tyrell:

    the hero of San Juan Hill, the Rough Rider, the Trust Buster.

    Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; stormy, husky, brawling, President of the Big Shoulders….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  30. Dave Schuler says:

    @Tyrell:

    The earliest attestation of the statement is in a letter of T. Roosevelt’s. There the attribution he gives is to a West African proverb.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  31. Mikey says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    The destruction of Dresden didn’t win World War II in the European theatre.

    The destruction of Dresden probably had no effect on the course of the war whatsoever. The city had little military significance and the bombing took place less than three months before the war in Europe ended.

    My mother-in-law and her nine siblings barely escaped burning to death that night.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  32. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We’re trying – yet again – to fight with scalpels despite a history of losing with scalpels and winning by overwhelming force.

    All we have won in the last 6 decades are insignificant scuffles.
    @michael reynolds:

    We are buying ourselves decades of terrorism because whatever happens to ISIS the essential reality of asymmetric warfare remains and we’ll get son of ISIS and grandson of Al Qaeda as our civil liberties erode and we bit-by-bit surrender our way of life and cringing becomes our new normal.

    We bought terrorism back in the 80’s. Reagan wrote the check.
    This blood-lust thing is exactly what Bin Laden wanted, and so we gave it to him. Now you want to repeat the same mistakes again. Let’s go ahead and pull the trigger on disproportionate military action. We have wasted hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars doing battle with a tactic. All of it playing directly into the hands of terrorists and empowering our enemies.
    Here at home we should step up draconian security measures. Republicans are already fighting to make this country into an authoritarian plutocracy. Let’s just go ahead and take the next step to facism.
    Or we could stop…take a breath…and learn from our mistakes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  33. André Kenji De Sousa says:

    As Napoleon, Wilhelm II, the Ottomans and George Bush discovered, you don’t win asymmetrical wars against Arabs. You co-opt them, but you don’t win.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  34. C. Clavin says:

    So GOP Governors want to only let Christians immigrate now. Because a forged Syrian passport was found in Paris. And xenophobia. And of course they want to aid and abet the enemy…which is what stopping refugees will do.
    (definitely reminiscent of the Planned Parenthood scuffle over faked videos)
    So now the GOP Presidential Candidates are all barking for action…and advocating pretty much exactly what Obama is already doing.
    Then of course there is the abstract…and the ineffective…and counterproductive…bomb the shit out of them.
    Anyone got a good idea?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  35. Rafer Janders says:

    @André Kenji De Sousa:

    As Napoleon, Wilhelm II, the Ottomans and George Bush discovered, you don’t win asymmetrical wars against Arabs. You co-opt them, but you don’t win.

    Um, the Ottomans beat the Arabs for about 800 years running — consistently wiped the floor with them, in fact. The French, meanwhile, managed to defeat the Arabs handily enough to establish a North African empire consisting of present day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, an empire which lasted for over 100 years. And I’m not sure what the reference to Wilhelm II is doing there, since Imperial Germany never went to war with any Arab state.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  36. Bill Lefrak says:

    The West’s major long-term problem in this global war is the West’s media-academia-luxury-politico classes and the ensuing dumb down and PC comas of its respective overall populations. The West has become too effeminate, too stupid, too PC, to take the various and rather obvious steps necessary to win.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  37. An Interested Party says:

    The West has become too effeminate…

    That’s amusing coming from someone who acts like he is literally pissing in his pants because we might take in Syrian refugees…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  38. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “Sherman’s March 150 years ago, Dresden and Hiroshima 70 years ago, Mutual Assured Destruction until 1989ish, and now we’re supposed to engage in an endless slap-fight where one stray bomb is all it takes to get everyone freaked out?”

    Hmm, seems to me some major historical moments are missing from your vast historical catalog. I vaguely remember a long and pointless war in which we carpet bombed an entire nation for a decade only to bug out because no matter how many people we killed we only ended up with more enemies. Oh, and of course our brilliantly ruthless campaign in Vietnam also brought down the non-hostile government in neighboring Cambodia and turned that country over to the Khmer Rouge, the exemplar of everything we claimed we were fighting.

    But I guess we’ll just ignore that one. After all, we won in Grenada.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  39. wr says:

    @Mikey: “My mother-in-law and her nine siblings barely escaped burning to death that night.”

    Well, sure, but it made people back here feel good about themselves, so it was worth it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. Mikey says:

    @wr: They were refugees at the time, too. They’d displaced from Upper Silesia ahead of the Soviet advance. Fortunately, they eventually ended up in the American occupation zone.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0