Hillary Clinton floats a Syria no-fly zone. How real an option for US?
In Turkey, Hillary Clinton called a Syria no-fly zone an option for the US. But Obama may be slow to choose it, and the remark may even have been a pointed signal aimed at Russia.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clintonâ€™s confirmation that a no-fly zone is one of the options the United States is considering to address Syriaâ€™s unabated bloodshed does not mean such a step is imminent.
In fact, it may have been uttered with the hope of making the need for such a leap to deeper American intervention in Syriaâ€™s civil war less likely.
Secretary Clinton â€śmay have intended this as a final shot across the bow to Russiaâ€ť and other powers supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, to say â€śweâ€™re trying to avoid something youâ€™d be very unhappy about,â€ť says Michael Oâ€™Hanlon, a national security and defense policy specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. And that â€śsomethingâ€ť Clinton may have been signaling, he adds, is that â€świth or without the United Nations, we are going to be getting more involved in this [conflict] if Assad remains in powerâ€ť with outside help of his own and the war drags on.
Clinton spoke of a possible no-fly zone and other options for assisting Syriaâ€™s rebels in their fight to oust Assad after her meeting in Istanbul Saturday with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutaglu. Clinton said she and Mr. Davutaglu agreed that a no-fly zone and other assistance the rebels are seeking from Western powers â€śneed greater in-depth analysis,â€ť adding that â€śyou cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning.â€ť
Translation: Any decision is not for tomorrow. But just the mention of a possible no-fly zone suggests the West may be moving closer to the kind of military intervention it undertook in Libya last year on the side of rebels opposed to Muammar Qaddafi â€“ and which Russia has bitterly criticized.
NATOâ€™s intervention in Libya followed UN Security Council action that the West took as a green light. That is why some international security analysts say any US-backed military involvement in Syria at this point would more closely resemble Western intervention in the Balkans in the 1990â€™s, which followed UN paralysis on the conflict.
In 1999 the US and NATO undertook a bombing campaign in the Kosovo war â€“ without UN authorization â€“ that eventually turned the conflict in the rebelsâ€™ favor.
But to this day the UN and NATO have peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, regional experts note â€“ a reminder, in case Clinton and other Western officials needed one, that military interventions are not always easy to end. (The Western intervention in Libya stretched on longer that NATO anticipated but nevertheless ended in a matter of months, some pro-intervention analysts point out.)
Clinton has a long list of factors to consider in â€śanalyzingâ€ť the no-fly zone option, Brookingsâ€™s Mr. Oâ€™Hanlon says, and one of them is how opening the door to military intervention could lead to deeper involvement.
â€śYou have to consider the slippery-slope phenomenon,â€ť he says, â€śhow this could evolve from a no-fly zone to a no-go zoneâ€ť as the Libya intervention did. â€śIf no-fly fails to stop Assadâ€™s attacks,â€ť Oâ€™Hanlon adds, â€śthen thereâ€™s a lot of pressure to strike at Syrian tanks and artillery.â€ť
The Westâ€™s deepening intervention in Libya did not prompt more than protests from Russia and other anti-interventionist powers because those powersâ€™ interests in the Qaddafi regimeâ€™s survival was not so great. But the US, already worried about the potential for the Syria conflict to balloon into a proxy war for dueling regional interests, is well aware that Russia, Iran, and others are unlikely to sit back (and indeed are already intervening) as the West jumps in.
After the US completes its â€śin-depth analysis,â€ť another factor determining whether or when to intervene will be the US presidential campaign.
President Obama would like to avoid deeper involvement in Syria, but if staying out becomes impossible then he will want military intervention to look like a last resort, says Oâ€™Hanlon, who has studied Obamaâ€™s use of the military. The presidentâ€™s â€śconscienceâ€ť could eventually prompt a decision to deepen US involvement, he says, but nothing suggests that would happen in a hasty manner.
â€śIf he canâ€™t altogether avoid it, he at least wants to maintain a perception that heâ€™s essentially a reluctant warrior,â€ť he says.
The situation might be different if Obama didnâ€™t have his use of drones to attack the Al Qaeda leadership, the taking out of Osama bin Laden, his â€śsurgeâ€ť of troops in Afghanistan, and Libya under his belt. But Oâ€™Hanlon says those actions leave Obama confident enough of his record that he doesnâ€™t feel compelled to intervene in Syria for interventionâ€™s sake.
â€śIf heâ€™d never used military force maybe he would act differently on Syria,â€ť he says, â€śbut I think at this point he feels he can afford to look at all the ramifications, and maintain a perception that heâ€™s the somewhat less interventionist and more cooperationâ€“minded of the two candidates.â€ť