Will U.S. and Turkey Create a Syria No-Fly Zone?
Ever since the Syrian civil war broke out in early 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama has resisted calls from Congress to establish a no-fly zone in the country. Now we have learned that one of Obama’s top envoys is negotiating just such a plan with Syria’s neighbor Turkey.
The new proposal would be called an “air-exclusion zone,” a buffer area inside Syria along the Turkish border that would be manned by Turkish troops and protected by U.S. air power, according to three senior U.S. officials who have been briefed on the discussions. The goal would be to give some Syria rebels and civilians protection from both Islamic State and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and increase the flow of humanitarian aid to Syria through the zone. The idea was last floated in 2012 by the French government, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was reported to support it at that time.
John Allen, the retired Marine general who is the Obama administration’s lead coordinator for the international coalition against IS, discussed the air exclusion zone with high ranking Turkish officials during his trip there earlier this month, according to these three officials.
If Obama approves the plan being negotiated by Allen, it would mark a reversal from his earlier policy. Since 2012, the White House has resisted calls from both parties in Congress to establish such protected areas in Syria, in part because it would be a significant strain on the U.S. Air Force and put fliers in mortal danger. But the White House has also been wary that a no-fly zone could drag the U.S. into a shooting war with the Syrian regime at the very moment it is trying to wage a war against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, two groups that have also fought the regime.
“You can’t have an exclusionary zone and not be in conflict with the regime," said a former Obama administration Pentagon official who worked on the Middle East. "You can’t have your cake and eat it too."
To date, there has been no formal consideration of this exclusion zone at the National Security Council level, and Obama has not made any decisions regarding the zone, top officials cautioned.
“The discussions in Turkey were an important step forward. Both sides are taking the new Turkish no-fly zone proposal seriously," said one U.S. official briefed on the proposal. "But at the end of the day, the president has to sign off on it and it would be a significant shift of policy.”
One Republican lawmaker who was briefed by Allen, speaking to reporters on a background basis earlier this month, said that Allen has faced opposition to his ideas for how to advance the mission against ISIS from the political leadership of the administration.
“General Allen is doing a good job," the lawmaker said. "I know that he shares differing views than those that are being espoused publicly and my sense is over time that he may, left to his own accord, actually develop a strategy that somewhat makes sense.”
According to top officials, Allen discussed the proposal as part of a package that would also include Turkey stepping up its fight against IS in other ways, including using Turkish troops inside Syria to spot for U.S. airstrikes, and allowing U.S. manned planes to fly anti-IS mission from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base. Until now, Turkey has only allowed the U.S. to fly drones from that base.
The proposal is a scaled-down version of earlier proposals from the Turks, in that it would not involve pre-emptive airstrikes to clear out the Assad regime’s air defense systems. Rather, the perimeter of the zone would be announced in advance, and Syrian forces would be engaged only if they violated it.
“The Pentagon has always been concerned about potential casualties that would result from going after the air-defense systems of the regime,” the former Pentagon official who had been briefed on the deal said. “But now the belief is that the regime’s integrated air defense system is hollowed out and does not represent a threat to U.S. assets.”
Vice President Joe Biden also traveled to Turkey this month to discuss increased cooperation in the fight against IS, but Biden did not discuss the air-exclusion zone proposal in his personal meetings, according to top officials.
“They didn't sit there and sign their names on the bottom line on a whole host of agreements,” an unnamed senior administration official told reporters in a briefing on the Biden trip. "But actually, I think we came to a much greater clarity about where we need to go from here. There were some additional questions that went unresolved, and both of our systems have to noodle over those in the coming days.”
One question that needs clarity is the size of the zone. Some officials believe that if the U.S. and Turkey go forward with a buffer that is minimal, the benefits might not be worth the risks. “The devil is in the details, you have to watch the longitudes and latitudes. The exclusionary zone could be extremely limited so it might mean bupkis,” the former Pentagon official said.
Figuring out where the idea of an exclusionary zone fits into the context of the Obama administration's overall Syria strategy is a bit of a challenge. Any perceived escalation of tensions with Assad would fly against the push by many in the White House to find ways to “de-escalate” the Syrian civil war by encouraging the Syrian regime and local opposition groups to pursue “freezes” in local battles. These freezes would allow for a cooling of tensions, increased flow of humanitarian aid and perhaps even a resumption of the political process.
This strategy is also favored by the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan di Mistura, who has publicly called for such freezes.
“We’re all ears about the concepts that he’s putting on the table,” a senior State Department official told us. “He’s shopped them in Damascus, he’s talked about them with the Russians, and we’ll to see where that goes. We are still exploring with di Mistura whether that is a path that can make meaningful progress inside Syria.”
The focus on so-called de-escalation is hotly contested inside the Obama national security team and on Capitol Hill. National Security Council staffers are said to favor the plan, while some officials at the State Department and U.S. mission to the United Nations see it as unrealistic and unhelpful, because such a policy might benefit the Assad regime as well as IS, which is not expected to cease its aggressive march across Northern Syria and attempts to take the city of Aleppo.
“I think it’s very unlikely that Bashar al-Assad, with the momentum on his side, and ISIS, with momentum on their side, would be willing to cease what has so far no doubt been successful,” Senator John McCain, the incoming Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told us in an interview at the Halifax International Security Conference. (ISIS is an alternative abbreviation for Islamic State.)
Pushing for de-escalation can only work if the U.S. and its allies put pressure on Assad and IS by increasing arms flows to the Free Syrian Army, who are losing the war on two fronts, McCain argued. He also favors a buffer zone inside Syria, but not de-escalation: “When people are fighting for the freedom of their country and we ask them to freeze, it’s crazy.”
Even some Democratic lawmakers are frustrated by what top officials, including outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, see as an administration policy in Syria that is incomplete because it assumes that the moderate rebels can be convinced to fight against IS first and not against the Assad regime, which continues its assault against the Free Syria Army and civilians.
Representative Adam Schiff, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, told us that asking the moderate rebels to fight IS but not Assad does not make sense. He said that a no-fly zone might be necessary to ensure the success of the U.S. plan to train and arm the moderate Syria rebels.
“Ultimately, I’m not sure this division of labor between sectarian rebels against ISIS but not against the regime is sustainable,” he said. “Ultimately if we are going to arm a moderate rebel force, we are going to have to protect them. That means if the regime goes after them, we are going to have to take the necessary steps to protect them.”
Clearly, sealing an air-exclusion deal with Turkey would be a major push ahead for such a strategy.
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Tobin Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org