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.