Downed Russian Military Jet Heightens Debate Over Syria No-Fly Zone Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and others are supporting the idea of a no-fly zone over Syria to try to help civilians there. But skeptics say it no longer has any relevance to today's Syrian crisis.

Downed Russian Military Jet Heightens Debate Over Syria No-Fly Zone

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That Russian warplane crashed near the Syrian border where there's growing talk of setting up a safe zone or a no-fly zone. Hillary Clinton recently endorsed such a move, and as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, she has plenty of company.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: They have all but become buzzword these days.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: A no-fly zone, a safe haven so they don't have to leave their country.

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JOHN MCCAIN: A safe zone, a no-fly zone.

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ADAM SCHIFF: A buffer zone or a safe zone.

BOWMAN: That's Republican senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain and Democratic congressman Adam Schiff all endorsing such a move. The theory is that a buffer zone along Turkey's border with Syria will help ease a refugee surge into Europe. It could provide a wide swath of land where refugees could get away from attacks by both the Syrian regime and extremist groups like the Islamic State. A no-fly zone is a more limited option. It would keep Syrian aircraft from attacking either American-backed rebels or refugees. That would allow civilians to feel safe enough to stay put.

DENNIS ROSS: You need to do something to staunch the flow of refugees.

BOWMAN: Veteran Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross says both a safe zone and a no-fly zone makes sense.

ROSS: Particularly now, what's happened in Europe - you're going to see more and more pressure to limit the people who can come.

BOWMAN: So U.S. and European countries would patrol from the air, and Ross said he would make this case to the regional Arab powers.

ROSS: You know we've been reluctant, but we'll be prepared to do it provided that you, Turkey, put forces on the ground to police the safe haven. You, the Saudis and Emiratis and the Qataris who want us to do this - you have to finance the infrastructure for the refugees.

BOWMAN: Ross is right about U.S. reluctance. Two years ago, the Pentagon said thousands of troops would have to patrol a safe zone. A no-fly zone could cost a billion dollars a month and leave U.S. aircraft vulnerable to Syrian missiles, and that was before Russia entered the fight.

That reluctance shows no sign of easing. Officials tell NPR the White House took a serious look at both the zones this fall and decided against it. President Obama recently dismissed it all. A no-fly zone, he said, would not help the Islamic State fight.

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BARACK OBAMA: ISIL does not have planes, so the attacks are on the ground. A true safe zone requires us to set up ground operations.

BOWMAN: Ground operations - something a president pledging to leave Iraq and Afghanistan is loathe to do. He said a safe zone raises more questions than answers.

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OBAMA: Who would come in? Who would come out of that safe zone? How would it work? Would it become a magnet for further terrorist attacks? And how many personnel would be required, and how would it end?

BOWMAN: A man who ran a no-fly zone back in Northern Iraq before the 1991 First Gulf War agrees it makes no sense for Syria.

DAVE DEPTULA: I think we've gone past the point where a no-fly zone can really be effective.

BOWMAN: Retired Air Force lieutenant general Dave Deptula said the fastest way to end Syrian air attacks is to destroy their aircraft on the ground.

DEPTULA: Instead of being distracted with no-fly zones, we ought to put together a cohesive, coherent strategy to eliminate the Islamic State.

BOWMAN: That means, Deptula said, withering airstrikes much stronger than the current ones, but that's something the president also has been reluctant to do fearing too many civilian casualties. Still, Dennis Ross, the veteran diplomat, like others, is intent on a no-fly zone and safe zone. And for Ross, these zones could provide the additional benefit of being a diplomatic tool pressuring Russian president Vladimir Putin to support a cease-fire and focus on attacking ISIS and not the rebels fighting his ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

ROSS: The alternative is going to be a safe haven where we become much more of an arbiter of the future. We are beginning to change the balance of power, and the costs to him potentially go up. From that standpoint, the threat of being prepared to support a save haven becomes a lever on Putin to do the right thing.

BOWMAN: And diplomacy doesn't work, Ross said, without leverage. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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