Clinton's big difference with Obama

Clinton's big difference with Obama
© Getty Images

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE is campaigning on the creation of no-fly zones in Syria, one of the few big breaks she has made from President Obama while campaigning for the White House. 

Clinton says the zones are necessary to protect civilians, end the outflow of Syrian refugees and pressure the Syrian regime into negotiating an end to the civil war.


Her calls have been cheered by activists, experts and U.S. officials who want the U.S. to act more aggressively in Syria, where the violence has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced 10 million from their homes.  

But the recommendation could not be any farther than the Obama administration's policy, which has been to avoid direct confrontation with Syria and its ally, Russia. 

The administration has feared getting mired in a drawn-out war with no clear end game.

While U.S. forces quickly triumphed over the enemy at the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they were soon bogged down in both places by nation building and insurgent uprisings. 

Obama tried to extract U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, only to send back more than 5,000 to Iraq and 300 to Syria. He also tried to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of his administration, but was forced to abandon that plan. 

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes defended the administration’s Syria policy in a recent interview with WNYC.  

"We have to think very carefully about the use of U.S. military force. Where does it work and where does it not work? Our military can accomplish any mission that we give it in the short term, but the question is, what consequences is that going to engender going forward," he said in the Nov. 1 interview. "There are not that many examples, frankly, in our post-war history where we have been able to use military force to engineer outcomes in places as complex as Syria." 

Defense officials have privately and publicly said that establishing the no-fly zones Clinton is suggesting would mean war with Syria and possibly Russia. 

"You understand what a no-fly zone means, right? You can declare a no-fly zone, but it's meaningless unless you're prepared to enforce it. To enforce it, you have to be prepared to shoot down that which flies in a no-fly zone," a defense official told The Hill. 

Proponents of creating no-fly zones argue they would be limited to specific areas of Syria.

During the final presidential debate, when asked by moderator Chris Wallace whether she would order shooting down a Russia plane if it violated the zones, Clinton argued said it could be avoided through communication. 

"This would not be done just on the first day. This would take a lot of negotiation and it would also take making it clear to the Russians and the Syrians that our purpose is to provide safe zones on the ground," she said. "So I think we could strike a deal and make it very clear to the Russians and Syrians that this was something that we believe the best interests of the people on the ground in Syria." 

Obama's former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, an adviser to Clinton, agrees there would be wiggle room when creating the zones.  

"It's incorrect to assume right away that to do that would require the United States to shoot down Russian airplanes. There are lots of ways to negotiate spaces like that where we could, through interactions with the Russians, make sure that kind of incident did not happen," he told The Hill.  

"I think a lot of commentators assume, 'Well the Russians are going to want to fly in our no-fly zone and then we're going to have to shoot them down' — well, why would the Russians want to fly there?" he added.  

Other experts point out that Russia did not call for war after Turkey shot down one of its aircraft that strayed into Turkish airspace last year.  

But U.S. defense and intelligence officials are much less optimistic about avoiding confrontation in Syria. 

Another U.S. defense official called Russia the "elephant in the room," arguing the country would likely violate a safe zone to how the U.S. responds.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also cast doubt on the idea last week, saying, "I wouldn't put it past them to shoot down an American aircraft if they felt that was threatening to their forces on the ground." 

"I do take seriously the very sophisticated air defense system and air defense coverage that the Russians have," Clapper said at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Russia announced it has moved its most advanced air defense systems, the S-400, into Syria. The Kremlin has vowed to protect assets inside Syria and warned that accidents might be hard to avoid. 

"There a real risk of a confrontation, and we should think that through, before we decide how to move forward," Paul Saunders, executive director for the Center for the National Interest, told The Hill. 

"The question for our policymakers is, are we sufficiently confident that that would not happen, to be prepared to take that risk?" 

The second defense official suggested that despite Clinton's calls for safe havens and no-fly zones, her overall Syria policy is "fuzzy."

Without a clear policy on Syria, including what to do about President Bashar al-Assad, it would make little sense to just implement and protect those zones to no end, the official said. 

A third defense official told The Hill that any new mission in Syria would come at the expense of other missions, at a time when Pentagon is already tasked with destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

The ISIS mission, which is expected to extend into the next administration, has so far required more than 5,000 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and an additional 300 deployed to Syria, with several thousands more deployed to neighboring countries and a nearby aircraft carrier. 

The cost of the campaign against ISIS has been about $10 billion since Aug. 8, 2014, or $378 million per month. Implementing safe zones with limited no-fly zones overhead would add more than one billion per month to that bill, according to a July 2013 memo written by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. 

The zones would also “require thousands of U.S. ground forces … even if positioned outside Syria, to support those physically defending the zones,” according to Dempsey’s memo. 

No-fly zones would further stretch the Air Force at a time when it is short 700 fighter pilots and looking to build readiness to fight potential future wars. Currently, the Air Force is expending the most in the ISIS war out of the four military services, with an average of $7.9 million a day.

Air Force Secretary Deborah James recently said the Air Force is facing severe manpower shortages, and needs to build readiness for a "high-end complex fight” with adversaries who are fast improving their own air capabilities. 

Still, James added that if the Air Force were asked to create a no-fly zone in Syria, “we would step up to the plate. We would do it with our joint war fighting partners and we would do it as part of the coalition."