Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier, in a passionately moralistic Washington Post piece, have revived interest in the idea of a no-fly zone in Syria. This proposal, once attractive, has become preposterous.
Even before Russian intervention, the no-fly zone idea was dubious, if only because the Syrian army possesses many long-range weapons which would cover the entire zone from the ground. But when only the Syrian air force was in question, it was certainly possible, both militarily and politically, to establish such a zone. Today, the strategy is a non-starter.
A no-fly zone would have to be established either with or without Russian cooperation. If with, it would be nothing but an oblique agreement to bomb IS. Russia would certainly carry on much like today - it would insist on its right to bomb 'extremists', that is, whoever it liked. So Russian-supported no-fly zone would not deserve the name.
Suppose then, as Ignatieff and Wieseltier imagine, it would be established in defiance of Russia. It would then come with a commitment to shoot down Russian air assets. The US would foresee sustaining some losses from advanced Russian anti-aircraft installations, and would therefore want preemptively to bomb these installations. In other words there would be a great deal of flying in this no-fly zone. After all, a simple Russian capitulation would be utterly disastrous for Putin and indeed for Russian prestige.
These are the military likelihoods. What matters even more are the real military possibilities. It is one thing to talk of a no-fly zone imposed on the Syrian air force, which Israel proved a pushover decades ago. It is quite something else to initiate violent confrontation with the world's second nuclear power. Even supposing this step could not possibly lead to nuclear Armageddon, nuclear powers have less disincentive to engage in serious conventional warfare: they feel that their opponents will never dare push them to desperate measures. Despite the apparent US lead in high-tech weaponry, it is by no means clear that the US would do well in a ground conflict against a formidable enemy thousands of miles from its shores.
These military uncertainties make the idea of a no-fly zone politically absurd. Europe would never even consider consenting to such measures - and whatever the true importance of Europe to US interests, America would never risk offending Europe on such a serious matter. Perhaps more important, China would have to take clashes with Russia as proof positive that preparation for a full military confrontation with the US was a pressing necessity.
Yet this obstacle is as nothing compared to the domestic political barrier. The American people couldn't care less about Syrians. They could never be sold on the measure as a wise step against terrorism, because they are convinced that the Syrian opposition is in bed with terrorists. They could never accept making enemies of Russia and Assad, who fight the Islamic State as well as rebel units that allegedly pro-rebel commentators insist on calling 'Al Qaeda'. There isn't the slightest, tiniest chance that establishing a no-fly zone against Russia could get Congressional approval. A country that wouldn't aid the rebels when the cost was almost zero is hardly going to aid them when the cost is potentially astronomical.
Is it really possible that Ignatieff and Wieseltier don't realize this? Perhaps their screed is just empty posturing. If not, it suggests something very different from its apparent humanitarianism.
The presupposition of their no-fly proposal is that the US must take the Syrian conflict in hand rather than entrust it to regional powers. Better clean-shaven American Top Guns at 30,000 feet than a bunch of crazy Arabs running around with Kalashnikovs on the ground. This is amusingly obtuse given that the Russian's Ukrainian adventure has just given the world an excellent lesson in how to intervene 'asymmetrically', without provoking a serious great power confrontation. The US could turn this strategy against Russia through massive, whole-hearted support of local anti-Assad ground forces via the states who back them. Indeed this is the only possible way to end the war that so appalls Ignatieff and Wieseltier. But most likely their contempt for the people of the region blinds them to this opportunity.