Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to the media in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Aug. 11.

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 Clinton’s confirmation that a no-fly zone is one of the options the United States is considering to address Syria’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 Syria’s civil war less likely.

Secretary Clinton “may have intended this as a final shot across the bow to Russia” and other powers supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, to say “we’re trying to avoid something you’d be very unhappy about,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a national security and defense policy specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. And that “something” Clinton may have been signaling, he adds, is that “with or without the United Nations, we are going to be getting more involved in this [conflict] if Assad remains in power” with outside help of his own and the war drags on.

Clinton spoke of a possible no-fly zone and other options for assisting Syria’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 “need greater in-depth analysis,” adding that “you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning.”

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 – and which Russia has bitterly criticized.

NATO’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 1990’s, which followed UN paralysis on the conflict.

In 1999 the US and NATO undertook a bombing campaign in the Kosovo war – without UN authorization – that eventually turned the conflict in the rebels’ favor.

But to this day the UN and NATO have peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, regional experts note – 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 “analyzing” the no-fly zone option, Brookings’s Mr. O’Hanlon says, and one of them is how opening the door to military intervention could lead to deeper involvement.

“You have to consider the slippery-slope phenomenon,” he says, “how this could evolve from a no-fly zone to a no-go zone” as the Libya intervention did. “If no-fly fails to stop Assad’s attacks,” O’Hanlon adds, “then there’s a lot of pressure to strike at Syrian tanks and artillery.”

The West’s deepening intervention in Libya did not prompt more than protests from Russia and other anti-interventionist powers because those powers’ interests in the Qaddafi regime’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 “in-depth analysis,” 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 O’Hanlon, who has studied Obama’s use of the military. The president’s “conscience” could eventually prompt a decision to deepen US involvement, he says, but nothing suggests that would happen in a hasty manner.

“If he can’t altogether avoid it, he at least wants to maintain a perception that he’s essentially a reluctant warrior,” he says.

The situation might be different if Obama didn’t have his use of drones to attack the Al Qaeda leadership, the taking out of Osama bin Laden, his “surge” of troops in Afghanistan, and Libya under his belt. But O’Hanlon says those actions leave Obama confident enough of his record that he doesn’t feel compelled to intervene in Syria for intervention’s sake.

“If he’d never used military force maybe he would act differently on Syria,” he says, “but I think at this point he feels he can afford to look at all the ramifications, and maintain a perception that he’s the somewhat less interventionist and more cooperation–minded of the two candidates.”

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