Giving Congress a Say on a No-Fly Zone in Syria

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Contributing Sr. National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton should tell voters over the next two weeks that if elected, she would seek congressional authorization before ordering the Pentagon to institute a no-fly-zone over Syria.

Making such a statement prior to the November 8 election would be a gamble, since it could cost her votes, but it would be a major step in establishing a new bond of honesty between her and the public.

It would also put members of Congress on notice that if elected president, she would see them as active partners in any major military undertaking, particularly one that involves sending American forces against a foreign country that has not attacked the U.S.

It also would show the world – and particularly the regimes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – that Clinton will have the American people behind her should she order such a major military undertaking.

During last Wednesday’s presidential candidate debate, Clinton reiterated her proposal for a Syrian no-fly-zone along with continuation of the current U.S. policy of supporting vetted anti-Assad elements willing to fight ISIS. “I think a no-fly-zone could save lives and could hasten the end of the conflict,” Clinton said.

She added she recognized that both President Barack Obama and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford have talked of its cost, and that it could create a military confrontation with Syrian or Russian aircraft.

She said there would be negotiations before it began, “making it clear to the Russians and the Syrians that our purpose here was to provide safe zones on the ground…for refugees.”

Clinton’s no-fly-zone and supplying arms to anti-Assad rebels, however, will not end the Syrian civil war.

The Obama administration, its domestic critics along with its Gulf and European allies have all failed to understand that Assad has been prepared to destroy his own country in order to remain in power. Marc Pierini, the former European Union diplomat now at Carnegie Europe, recently wrote that the Assad clan would fight to the end, not being able “to conceive of a different way to run the country.”

President Putin, building on Moscow’s long-term support of the Assad clan, escalated Russia’s early participation in the civil war through supplying arms and military advisers when he began to provide direct air support to Assad in September 2015. He came to Assad’s aid at a time when Syrian rebels were gaining ground with U.S., Gulf nations, and other allies’ support. Since then, Russian/Syrian scorched earth policy has turned the tide, as the Assad regime regained territory it had lost.

The current Syrian/Russian constant bombing of areas of Aleppo controlled by rebel forces, without concern for civilian deaths and casualties, is just the latest indication that Assad is following in the bloody footsteps of his father, President Hafez al-Assad. In 1982, his father’s forces massacred some 20,000 inhabitants of Hama—almost all Syrian Sunnis in rebellion—and then literally bulldozed the city to end the uprising.

Facing that kind of enemy, it’s clear that more U.S. and allied military might will be needed before they will be able to bring Russia, Assad, and his allies to a real negotiation to end the war.

Devising such a plan will be hard, perhaps impossible. As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook recently wrote, it should be a “plan that simultaneously serves U.S. strategic interests, restores Washington’s moral standing, and relieves Syrian suffering without burdening Americans with another potentially decade-long fight in the Middle East.” Cook observed, “This is an extraordinarily difficult task made worse by the multilayered nature of the fight in Syria.”

Even then, as Pierini noted, “The Syrian war has no happy end in close sight. Even if hostilities were to cease tomorrow, the tasks of rebuilding the country’s political system, security, infrastructure, and private dwellings, and of clearing unexploded mines and ordnance would probably take a decade. Rehabilitating the traumatized Syrian people and piecing together communities that previously had a tradition of coexistence would take several generations.”

But more than just Syria is involved in this election.

For decades, Republicans and Democrats have claimed during election campaigns that their presidential candidate, as head of the most powerful nation economically and militarily, would be best the best person to lead the free world.

The GOP has spent the past seven years criticizing President Obama for “leading from behind.” Of course that bumper-strip slogan hardly describes the rational yet cautious approach the administration has taken, particularly in the turbulent Middle East, where the White House emphasis has been to help friendly governments protect themselves rather that the U.S. provide forces to do that for them.

However, Donald Trump, the GOP’s current presidential choice, promises to reverse entirely his party’s past internationalist approach with his “America First” campaign. He would withdraw from any military involvement overseas, unless for quick, secret, raids to knock out terrorist groups directly threatening the American homeland. There would be no more nation-building, and if our current allies or other friendly nations want to continue U.S. military protection or support, they will have to reimburse Washington for it.

As the former Secretary of State, Clinton has in the main supported the Obama foreign policies since she helped fashioned some of them. Up to now, she has promised to continue down the same path, albeit with perhaps a more forward leaning threat of using force – although always promising to take such steps in conjunction with allies.

The vast majority of the American public, however, has shown when it comes to foreign policy and national security, their main concern primarily has been their own personal safety. They want quick and simple solutions to prevent unpredictable and unstoppable terrorist attacks – these days more likely home grown rather than foreign instigated.

These Americans seem tired after 15 years of continuous warfare, despite the fact that 99 percent of them have not served, have no relatives who have served, and have not paid a penny extra in new federal taxes to support the fighting. These distant wars seem such an indirect tie to protecting their own security.

However, the new president will not be able to ignore what is going on in the rest of world. Clinton, as the most probable winner, will have to make immediate decisions affecting the hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces currently involved in fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, other Middle Eastern countries as well as Syria.  

The new Congress will also have a role. Unlike their predecessors, new House and Senate members should finally vote some type of surtax to pay for the fighting and stop putting it – some $60 billion in the current budget – on a credit card as has been done for the past 15 years.

There are still issues in the Far East with North Korea’s nuclear program; China’s buildup in the South China Sea; Europe and NATO; Russia’s aggressiveness; and Hemispheric concerns with Cuba and Venezuela.

Every nation looks first to Washington for leadership.

After this year’s tumultuous and divisive campaign, this election offers a clear choice for Americans who care about what role in international affairs they want the next United States president to take. 

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.

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