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Just Say No to a Karabakh ‘No-Fly Zone’

Soldiers atop a tank bearing the flag of the Nagorno-Kabarakh Republic. (By Bumble Dee/Shutterstock)

The renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh has not drawn that much attention in the West, but many of the initial, knee-jerk responses to the conflict have been remarkably bad. Whether it is members of Congress urging U.S. recognition of an independent Artsakh, pro-Azerbaijan advocates calling for U.S. support for the aggressor, or Iran hawks cheering on aggression against Armenians because they have the “wrong” geopolitical alignment, many Americans are eager to co-opt and meddle in a conflict that has nothing to do with us. David Ignatius takes the cake with his new proposal to impose a “no-fly zone” in the South Caucasus (a region whose name he doesn’t know how to spell):

Here’s a simple suggestion for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is scheduled to meet Friday with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan: The path to real negotiations and stability in Karabakh could begin with a no-fly zone over the enclave, enforced by the United States, Russia and France, the three co-chairs of the “Minsk Group” that had been fruitlessly attempting to settle the Karabakh issue since 1992.

This is a terrible proposal for reasons that I hope are so obvious that they don’t need to be spelled out, but let’s review some of the chief problems. Ignatius has been banging the drum to “do something” about the new war over Karabakh for weeks, but this is the first time that he has explicitly called for military action. It is a mindless, reflexive demand for intervention that makes absolutely no sense. “No-fly zones” by themselves do not halt conflicts, and at best this would just expand the conflict to include more belligerents. It is difficult to see where U.S. planes would be enforcing this “no-fly zone” from, since it is doubtful Turkey would permit basing or overflight for such a mission, and there is a decent chance that the U.S. might have to enforce this “no-fly zone” against Turkish jets at some point. Ignatius’ proposal is hopelessly naive and extremely dangerous.

Enforcing a “no-fly zone” against two countries at war would involve not only possibly attacking both belligerents, but then maintaining patrols for months and maybe even years in flagrant violation of the sovereignty of both states. Russia would obviously refuse to participate, and there would be no legal authorization for the mission from the U.N. or anywhere else. The U.S. has absolutely no right to do what Ignatius demands. It would further complicate an already difficult conflict, and even if it limited Azerbaijan’s ability to use drones against Armenian armor and artillery it would not prevent fighting from continuing on the ground. The U.S. has no vital interests at stake in this conflict. It would be absurd and irresponsible to interfere militarily in a conflict that truly has nothing to do with us. Ignatius doesn’t acknowledge, much less address, any of these problems, and his argument is typical of an unthinking interventionist mentality that immediately jumps to a military option before other alternatives have been exhausted.

The best thing that the U.S. can do is to call for both sides to deescalate, to support efforts to negotiate a ceasefire, and to withhold military assistance from the Azerbaijani government that launched the attack in late September and from the Turkish government that egged them on. Inserting U.S. forces into the mix would be criminally irresponsible, and it would be completely illegal under both U.S. and international law.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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