The weird thing about Governor Perry’s “Syrian no-fly-zone” moment was not that he talked about a no-fly zone (NFZ) with the Fox news pundits, and then reiterated his comments in the GOP foreign policy debate on Tuesday.
The weird thing is that there seems, in fact, to be a proposal for a Syrian NFZ – one in which the US would reportedly provide logistic support – and it took a GOP candidate to tell us about it.
Perry took a lot of heat for “bringing up” the idea of an NFZ for Syria. But foreign news agencies have been furiously reporting for nearly a week that negotiations are underway for such a measure. The plan, as sketched out to date, would involve Arab and Turkish air forces enforcing the NFZ, with the US providing logistic support.
Calm down, the aircraft carrier is not off Syria
With little having been disclosed to the public at this point, and no assurance as to what is actually being planned or proposed, speculation is rampant. DEBKA and the Russian agency RT are hyperventilating today over a report that USS George H W Bush (CVN-77) has anchored off the Syrian coast. But Bush actually pulled into Marseilles on the 25th for a long-scheduled port visit (and posted photos from a reception in Marseilles on Saturday at her Facebook page). French local press confirms the carrier’s presence.
The Russians may or may not have dispatched three warships to Tartus to signal that they don’t want a Western intervention in Syria, and that they want to protect their alliance with the Assad regime. The report originated with Syria, and Russia is being coy about the ships. It would be very easy to disprove the Syrian news story, if the ships aren’t there. And they may well be, calling in Tartus from the anti-piracy station off Somalia, as a Russian anti-piracy task force did in September.
Meanwhile, reports that the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is in the Med are premature. As of 24 November, the carrier and her escorts were still in the Northern Fleet operations area in the Barents Sea, awaiting a pre-deployment inspection. The transit to the Strait of Gibraltar will take at least 8 days once it starts; the Russian media report that Kuznetsov will be in the Med in December. Her deployment has been scheduled for some time; of course her activities are indicators of Russian national interests, but they aren’t necessarily an indication of reaction to yesterday’s news.
Bush deployed from Norfolk on 11 May, and is on the way home at the end of her deployment (which will be 7 rather than 6 months if she arrives in Norfolk around the 11th of December). It’s possible for Bush to be held in the Med for some reason in the next couple of weeks, but she is not the best platform for providing logistic support to an NFZ – and, indeed, is superfluous for that mission in the Med. The Air Force, with our existing infrastructure of resources in Europe, can do the whole job, and do it better. If Bush’s air wing were to be used for anything, it would be initial strikes on the Syrian air-defense infrastructure. But it’s not clear that US assets are even going to be involved in that phase of the operation. Bush is due in Norfolk before Christmas, and my money is on her continuing home when the port visit ends in Marseilles (she is scheduled to depart on Tuesday 29 November).
(Note: USS John C Stennis, CVN-74, is in the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean, having deployed from the US West coast in August. She is the only carrier on-station in the region, and will not be redeployed to the Med.)
The big questions
One nagging question is why we in the US keep hearing after the fact about force deployments, uses of force, and support for “kinetic” operations, as if we’re an afterthought in the arrangements of the Oval Office. This is particularly disquieting when other nations begin deploying military forces in one place or another, while the US administration emits little besides rhetorical shrugs and formulaic bromides.
Everyone was at least talking about the problem in Libya, and what role the US should play in it, before the president decided to “lead from behind” there. But in mounting his non-hostile kinetic military action, he could hardly be said either to have stated a coherent policy on Libya, or presented a set of national objectives to Congress for approval. When Congress invoked the 90-day deadline from the War Powers Act, Obama simply ignored its demands.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s decision in October to send a special forces detachment to Uganda was disclosed during the news-black-hole window on a Friday afternoon, and was done with no prior public discussion and very little explanation after the fact.
This month, the decision to begin basing a Marine detachment in Australia was announced in the multinational forum most likely to anger and alarm China, but again without prior notice to the American people. The basing move can be read one of two ways – as a token affirmation of US engagement and bona fides, or as a provocation – and in either case, the people are entitled to know what commitments are being made in their name, and why.
That goes triple for an adventure in Syria. There are big questions about any potential intervention, and about an NFZ proposal, in particular; e.g., why the US would support a Turkish leadership role in it, and what consequences it would produce. A conflagration in Lebanon, an armed response from Israel, the use of northern Iraq as a corridor for support coming from Iran – these are just some of the first-order possibilities. Syria is not Libya; for that matter, Turkey and the Arab states are not France and Britain. Syria’s geographic situation is pivotal in the Middle East, in a way Libya’s is not, and so is the Assad regime’s association with Iran and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, at least half a dozen nations would argue that Turkey under Erdogan is a key problem in the Eastern Med, not a solution to anything – at least not if Turkey assumes a regional leadership role in which she is not only patrolling the Eastern Med with warships, conducting air strikes in northern Iraq, and permanently stationing troops there, but is patrolling the skies over Syria as well. In the eyes of our own allies in the region (not to mention Russia’s eyes), NATO or the United States enabling Turkey to expand the scope of her military activities is a highly unfavorable development.
The idea’s not stupid, but the execution may be
A reasonable case can be made for intervening in Syria. The chief value of an NFZ, per se, lies not in preventing Assad from using his air force against the Syrian people (he has shown little disposition to), but in preventing Iran (or Russia, or even China) from flying arms and provisions into the country – or perhaps providing air support of their own to Assad. Of course, the fact that that is the chief value of an NFZ is also the chief obstacle to implementing one, unless the US is in charge. And since logistic support to Assad can come by sea (and even, theoretically, by rail, if Iraq allows it), an NFZ alone would not shut down his options entirely.
Rick Perry is right, however: if there is to be a no-fly zone, it ought to be enforced under the auspices of overt US policy, and ideally would be a combined NATO-Arab states operation. As with the constraints on our options in Desert Storm, having more allies would mean having a narrower charter to transform Syria. There would have to be a greater degree of compromise on the outcome than some in Europe and the US might prefer.
But the benefits for stability from executing a combined operation under US leadership would outweigh the costs. The most important benefit for America would be directly and meaningfully influencing the outcome in Syria. All the positive consequences for the US and our allies and partners in the region would flow from that.
There can be only negative consequences from encouraging others to take the lead. Unlike the situation in Libya, no important actor has the luxury of being passive about the course of events in Syria. Syria, they’ll fight over. Even the relatively unimportant actors are already trying to put down markers, as we see with the effort of the new Libyan government to arm the Syrian insurgents, and with unconfirmed reports that Iraq’s Shia revolutionary leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, is sending loyalists to intervene on the side of the Syrian regime.
Syria is the theater where America’s luck will run out, if we foster the leadership of others for abstract ideological purposes. The question for Americans is how to rein in a presidential administration that is running around making – or even just implying – under-the-radar military commitments, as if they amount to shaking a talisman at a set of problems we have allowed others to define.
Military force in any guise is a big deal, as is failing to use it when a situation calls for it. There is no such thing as “routine” use of the military element of national power. The policy and the strategic considerations behind it should always be under the glare of a public spotlight, even if the operational particulars are not.