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Since we’re on the subject, and it’ll be a helpful backdrop for what I’m about to write, the three (?) day old Syrian peace talks are
going to be lucky if they see a fourth day over, they’re over. Don’t buy the “pause” spin. Bashar al-Assad’s forces, with a lot of help from Russian air power, are making major territorial gains around Aleppo that threaten to cut the rebel-held areas of the city off entirely. The opposition delegation to Geneva, which really only seems to be there to try to wring a ceasefire and some humanitarian concessions from Assad, probably won’t stay if Assad doesn’t put an end to this Aleppo offensive, and Assad won’t put an end to this Aleppo offensive so long as he’s winning. It’s pretty much the definition of an impasse.
Hillary Clinton, if she’s elected president, has a plan to break the Syrian impasse altogether: a no-fly zone. She called for the US to implement one right after Russia started its bombing campaign to save Assad, called for it again in mid-November, and reiterated that call yet again at a debate in December. So she clearly wants people to associate this particular policy with her candidacy. And, if she really means it (I’ll get to that), this is a pretty dangerous and irresponsible idea. Instituting and enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria means grounding Assad’s air power and Russia’s air power–indeed, there’s little point to a no-fly zone over Syria other than grounding Assad and Russia. It means a willingness to shoot down Russian and/or Syrian aircraft that violate the zone. It means, potentially, taking out Syrian and Russian anti-aircraft weapons that are trained on or used against American aircraft policing the zone. It means being prepared to go to war, with Russia, and that’s a war that won’t stay confined to Syrian airspace. Ask people in Ukraine (despite its recent plans for maybe sending troops to Syria to fight ISIS) and Estonia whether they’d like to see the US and Russia get into a shooting war in Syria and see what they say.
If you could implement a Syrian no-fly zone without incurring a response from Russia, then Clinton has a point; it would really change the course of the war. Absent his/Russia’s air power edge over the Syrian rebels, Assad would immediately lose the momentum he’s picked up over the past several months, and it’s likely that he’d soon be back where he was before Russia intervened: on the ropes, struggling to hold on to Damascus and keep himself alive. But that’s precisely why you couldn’t implement a Syrian no-fly zone without incurring a response from Russia. There’s no scenario under which Russia benefits from a no-fly zone. When Clinton is asked about this point, she talks about putting together a “coalition” no-fly zone alongside Russia, but anybody who’s spent more than 5 minutes reading anything about the Syrian civil war knows that’s gibberish. Clinton’s no-fly zone is supposed to change the calculus around peace talks and stem the flow of refugees out of Syria. But the reason the peace talks are going nowhere is because Assad is starting to win again, and Assad’s the one who’s created most of those refugees. Why would Russia back a policy that is manifestly designed to harm their client? This is undoubtedly why the Obama administration and the Pentagon have both rejected the idea. So has Bernie Sanders, who, for all his supposed extreme leftiness, is actually closer to Obama on this than Clinton is.
Adam Johnson at AJAM called Clinton’s no-fly zone proposal “insane” about a month ago, and I don’t think he’s out of bounds to characterize it that way. To give Clinton the full benefit of the doubt, though, there are a couple of scenarios under which her support for this idea might make sense. The first is that she could be doing it as a demonstration to Moscow that the next American president, whether it’s her or a Republican, is going to take a harder line on Russia’s activities in Syria than Obama. This would be some kind of convoluted good cop-bad cop routine that she’s worked out with Obama to try to scare the Russians into leaning on Assad to reach a peace deal now, because they figure they’ll get better terms now than they’ll be able to get in 2017 and beyond. The problem with this scenario is that making Clinton defend this hawkish policy in the middle of a closer-than-expected Democratic primary fight materially damages her chances of actually winning the primary. The bad cop routine doesn’t work if Sanders gets the nomination.
The second scenario under which this works (which is similar to the first but doesn’t involve collusion with Obama) is that Clinton has adopted the Nixon “madman” strategy. One of the cornerstones of Nixon’s foreign policy involved convincing other leaders around the world that he was crazy, and that his reaction to provocation couldn’t be predicted. This was supposed to terrify leaders of hostile nations (including the Soviets) and thereby get them to bend to America’s wishes rather than risk Nixon’s madness. In theory, this isn’t a totally off-base strategy. The United States, despite having easily the world’s most powerful military and despite pursuing a needlessly violent and provocative foreign policy at times, also spends a lot of time worrying about not provoking a major (World War III-scale) conflict. We didn’t respond in force to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for example. We intervened in Libya, where the risk of escalation was small, but not in a similar situation in Syria, where the risk of escalation was huge (and both countries are disasters now, in case you haven’t been paying attention). Even George W. Bush, the champion of the utterly unnecessary and wholly self-defeating war of choice, didn’t (for example) go to war with North Korea after that country tested its first nuclear weapon. This drives hawks in the US crazy, of course, because their assumption is a) that the United States should be allowed to act militarily with impunity whenever and wherever it wants, and b) US military power can solve pretty much every problem that crops up around the world.
If Clinton isn’t an outright hawk on Syria, maybe she thinks she can get somewhere by convincing the rest of the world that she is. Maybe she thinks that if she can convince Moscow that she’s going to implement and enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, to hell with the consequences, that Moscow would have to worry about not provoking Washington for a change, instead of Washington worrying about not provoking Moscow. If the US isn’t really prepared to go to war with a necessarily militarily weaker Russia over Bashar al-Assad, then shouldn’t Russia also be unprepared to go to war with a military stronger United States over the same guy? The problem with this scenario, of course, is that it’s a bluff, and you should never bluff unless you’re prepared to be called. Nixon’s madman strategy failed in Vietnam because nobody really thought he was unhinged enough to use nuclear weapons over a civil war in Southeast Asia. Is anybody going to believe that Clinton is prepared to risk a world war over Syria? I have my doubts.
Unless, of course, she actually is prepared to risk a world war over Syria, in which case we’re back to “dangerous and irresponsible” and/or “insane.” Your guess is as good as mine.