Last night on Fox News, Rick Perry did a “Center Seat” interview with the Special Report panel, and became the first presidential candidate to endorse a no-fly zone in Syria. Byron York recounts the exchage:
[Charles] Krauthammer asked: “Would you do what we did in Libya, which is to institute a no-fly zone over Syria? If you were president today, would you advocate that we do that in Syria?”
“Absolutely,” Perry said. “Absolutely.”
At that point, Fox panelist William Kristol asked Perry if he would impose a no-fly zone unilaterally, without waiting for the United Nations to approve. “I would not spend a lot of time waiting for the U.N.,” Perry answered.
Perry will almost certainly be asked to clarify this in the debate tonight. While we wait for that, some background on the idea Krauthammer asked about. Some elements of the Syrian opposition have been calling for a no-fly zone for a while; protestors in the street called for such an intervention last month. Most of the bloodletting in Syria has been done by bullets and mortar shells; there have been a handful of attacks from helicopter gunships, but stopping those would not significantly affect the Assad regime’s capacity for violence against peaceful protestors, though it might have second-order and symbolic effects. Last month, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Micah Zenko examined what protestors think a no-fly zone might accomplish; he was (and remains) quite skeptical of the idea.
There has been talk in Turkey of establishing a “buffer zone” just across the Syrian border to give civilians safe haven, but there is the obvious risk that an incursion into Syrian territory could escalate into a full-scale war.
What has changed recently is attacks carried out by the Free Syrian Army, a group led by defectors from the Syrian military. The FSA says that foreign intervention could help them overthrow Assad, and has called for a no-fly zone and buffer zones along both the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The core of their argument is that more units will defect if they can do so without fearing that they’ll be bombed from the air.
The Obama administration and NATO has more or less ruled out any military intervention, hoping that Assad can still be toppled without a civil war — though a civil war seems to already be breaking out. In the current Weekly Standard, Lee Smith makes the case that it’s too late for that, and the Obama administration’s policy of discouraging the opposition from taking up arms is perverse. He concludes that answering the FSA’s calls for a no-fly zone to encourage more defections is the best move.
We’ll see tonight whether Perry is prepared to coherrently make that argument, and whether other candidates are prepared to join him.