Putin Has His Own No-Fly Zone in Syria
After years of debating a U.S.-led no-fly zone inside Syria to protect rebels and civilians, Vladimir Putin has established his own no-fly zone in a matter of days -- to protect his new base there.
In the U.S. there is an increasing bipartisan call for the U.S. to move toward some form of a no-fly zone or humanitarian buffer zone in Syria. Hillary Clinton said Thursday that if she were in office, she would be advocating for a no-fly zone to protect civilians and stem the flow of refugees. Putin made it look easy.
NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, General Philip Breedlove, was the first top Western official to publicly state that Russia’s new military infrastructure inside Syria, which includes anti-aircraft defense systems, was a de facto no-fly zone. He warned on Tuesday that Russia had created a new anti-access/area-denial bubble in Syria where U.S. planes could no longer travel.
He said the “very sophisticated air defense capabilities" were not aimed at the Islamic State. "They’re about something else,” he said.
On Thursday, the Pentagon confirmed the extent of the new Russian no-fly zone in Syria when it announced that the U.S. and Russia had begun discussions on how to “deconflict” their air operations there, led by the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Elissa Slotkin. Slotkin told her Russian interlocutors that the U.S. is concerned Russia strikes don’t seem to be targeting the Islamic State, but rather some other opposition groups, including those supported by the United States.
But the U.S. government won’t commit to using American air power to defend the rebels, the Pentagon's press secretary, Peter Cook, told reporters Thursday. He did not confirm that Russia was attacking the U.S.-backed rebels.
“I'm not going to get into hypothetical situations,” he said. “We have made clear the importance of the moderate Syrian opposition, in terms of Syria's political future, and that anything done to harm that moderate Syrian opposition is counterproductive to the end result that we believe is necessary, and that is a political transition in Syria.”
On Thursday the Obama administration was said to be weighing whether the U.S. would respond to Russian attacks on the rebels America has supported.
Administration officials argue that the new deconfliction talks with Russia are prudent for safety reasons and do not amount to a de facto legitimization of Putin's new role in the Syrian civil war. But at the same time, there is an effort to reengage Russia on the diplomatic track.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have had three meetings this week on renewing discussions for a political solution in Syria. Those discussions would not seek to oust Russia’s new military presence there, which the Obama administration is now accepting as a fait accompli.
Behind the scenes, Obama administration officials have been telling the Russians and the Iranians for over a year that the U.S. would not object to an expanded security role for them inside Syria, multiple officials told me. The U.S. was willing to accept that in exchange for Russian and Iranian helping to move Assad out of power.
“The idea was that Assad would step aside and the Russians and Iranians would play a greater role, and the U.S. would say that’s inside the framework of the Geneva communiqué,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But they grabbed what we were offering and didn’t give us what we wanted, and then we were surprised.”
Since the Russian buildup began last month, the U.S. has been signaling that it is ready to accept Russian and Iranian security control inside Syria without any promise by them to push Assad out any time soon. Kerry has said publicly the U.S. is flexible as to the timing of Assad’s departure. Other voices close to the White House have gone even further.
“The current policy of the United States and its partners, to increase pressure on Assad so that he ‘comes to the table’ and negotiates his own departure -- must be rethought,” Philip Gordon, the former White House coordinator for the Middle East, wrote this week. “It is fanciful to imagine limited airstrikes, arms to the opposition, or the establishment of a no-fly-zone would lead Assad to behave differently from Saddam, Milosevic or Gaddafi.”
The proposed American no-fly zone was meant chiefly to protect civilians. Putin’s new no-fly zone does the opposite. It protects the Assad regime, as it attacks civilians. The more Obama allows the Russian military to become entrenched in Syria, the more he shows he no longer wants to push out Assad as soon as possible.
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