Hillary Clinton is trying to distance herself from Obama on Syria, but members of her own party oppose greater U.S. military involvement.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
Hillary Clinton has a plan for how to save hundreds of thousands of Syrians from Bashar al-Assad’s war machine. Unfortunately for the Democratic presidential front-runner, leaders of her own party don’t like it.
On the campaign trail, in interviews, and in the first Democratic debate, Clinton has called for the establishment of a “no-fly zone” in Syria which would be patrolled by American warplanes tasked with preventing Assad from using his helicopter gunships and jets to bomb his own people. If necessary, the U.S. warplanes would have the authority to shoot down Syrian aircraft.
“I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air,” Clinton said this month.
Clinton has both substantive and political reasons for her call. The humanitarian situation on the ground in Syria is continuing to worsen, with an estimated 6.5 million Syrians leaving their homes for safer parts of their own country, while at least 3 million more have fled the country altogether. Stopping Assad’s air war against his people could save lives while giving desperate Syrians less incentive to make the dangerous trip out of their homeland.
Politically, calling for a no-fly zone allows Clinton to distance herself from President Barack Obama, who has faced growing criticism from members of both parties for his inability to craft a strategy for either defeating the Islamic State or ousting Assad. Clinton has labeled the administration’s effort to train Syrian rebels to battle the Islamic State a “failed policy.” Publicly breaking with Obama over Syria also allows her to push back against Republican accusations that a Clinton presidency would effectively mark Obama’s third term.
Clinton’s tougher line, however, also sets up a potential public feud with party heavyweight Joe Biden. The vice president recently ruled out a possible bid for the Democratic nomination, but Biden has vowed to speak out in defense of the administration’s policies, and Clinton’s criticism of the White House’s handling of Syria could prompt him to fire back.
It also leaves her clearly at odds with many of the Democratic lawmakers she’d rely on for support during the primaries this fall and the actual presidential vote in a year’s time. Democrats in Congress see a no-fly zone as a risky step that could draw the United States into a large-scale military commitment and possibly into direct conflict with Russia, which has launched an air war against rebels opposing the Assad regime. Some lawmakers worry that U.S. pilots would eventually find themselves squaring off against Russian fighter jets over Syria.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, told Foreign Policy that lawmakers in Clinton’s party are dismayed at the situation in Syria but have yet to be persuaded that a no-fly zone would be the best solution.
“There’s a general frustration that we’re not doing enough, but I think that then leads to the question, ‘What should we do?’ and there are no clear answers,” said King.
Establishing a no-fly zone in Syria means “a very large military commitment, and you are potentially shooting down Russian planes,” King said. “Where does that lead?”
Months before Russia sent aircraft and troops to Syria, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) signed a letter to Obama calling for the creation of “one or more humanitarian safe zones.” The letter, cosigned in April with two prominent Republican hawks, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, urged U.S. action to ensure a safe route for relief supplies and to shield civilians from Syrian regime aircraft.
But the bipartisan call for action did not gain traction among other Democrats. And Clinton’s outspoken backing for the option so far has not had a galvanizing effect on lawmakers, who are hesitant to see the United States wage war against Assad, a congressional staffer said.
“There is concern over what’s happening on the ground, but there is no appetite for increasing U.S. military involvement,” the staffer said. “And many of them are not convinced that any of the options being discussed now can be effective.”
The debate over U.S. policy on Syria has gained new urgency in the wake of heart-wrenching images of refugees desperately trying to make their way to Europe.
But it’s not always clear what lawmakers are calling for as no-fly zones or safe areas are loosely defined terms that can cover a range of military options, with some scenarios calling for ground troops to protect displaced civilians.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told FP that he and other Democrats were looking at how to address the plight of Syrian civilians, possibly through a no-fly zone, but he voiced reservations over any measure that involves putting boots on the ground.
“I’m very reluctant about increasing our military presence on the ground if that’s what it requires. We all want to do something on the humanitarian side. There’s different ways of doing it,” said Cardin, without elaborating.
Clinton’s Democratic rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Gov. Martin O’Malley, have rejected the move. O’Malley warned of a conflict with Russia, and Sanders said it could draw the United States into an open-ended quagmire.
Many lawmakers have yet to declare a position on the issue. Leaders of the Democratic Party in the House and Senate, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid, respectively, were unavailable for comment.
Democrats aren’t the only ones wary about creating a no-fly zone, an idea some Pentagon officials and senior military commanders dismiss as difficult to implement and potentially dangerous for U.S. forces.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the president had not ruled out the option of setting up a no-fly zone but he said such a step would be a “substantial military undertaking” requiring targeting Syrian air defense systems.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, said in September that a no-fly zone would need ground troops and that he did not support the idea.
Clinton has not spelled out the details of her no-fly-zone idea, so it’s unclear if what she envisions would be as expansive as what Carter and Austin described. It also remains unclear if she favors allowing opposition rebels to operate out of the area and whether U.S. troops would be needed to police the zone on the ground.
Moscow’s direct intervention in the conflict has further complicated the equation, and policymakers and commanders are weighing whether a no-fly zone is worth running the risk of a confrontation in the skies with Russian warplanes.
When asked if she would be ready to order a Russian aircraft to be shot down, Clinton has sidestepped the question.
“Well, that’s a hypothetical that I think there are many steps you have to go through and decisions you have to make before you ever get to that,” she told MSNBC on Oct. 23.
Clinton’s position does not enjoy overwhelming public support, but many voters have yet to make up their mind on the issue.
In a Rasmussen survey released this month, 45 percent back the idea, with a roughly equal number of Democratic and Republican voters supporting the step. While 26 percent oppose the creation of a no-fly zone, even more voters — 29 percent — said they were undecided.
With public opinion still forming on the issue, Clinton could end up shaping the political debate on Syria and drawing more lawmakers to her side, analysts said.
Clinton also has called for the U.S. government to accept up to 65,000 Syrian refugees, marking another break with the White House, which has announced plans to take in 10,000 civilians.
Three years ago, while she served as Obama’s secretary of state, Clinton sided with more hawkish voices in an intense debate inside the administration over whether to aid opposition rebels or set up a no-fly zone. Clinton had powerful allies: Her views were echoed by then-CIA chief David Petraeus, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Obama vetoed their recommendations to arm the rebels.
During that policy battle, opponents cited some Pentagon contingency plans that called for a large-scale bombing campaign to take out all of Syria’s advanced air defense weapons and air bases.
But Clinton has recently suggested a massive air war would not be a prerequisite for a no-fly zone, as the Syrian regime no longer has working air defense systems in many areas where it has lost control, including northern provinces near the Turkish border.
“They don’t have, if any are still standing, command and control over air defenses in the north and many other parts of Syria,” Clinton told PBS on Oct. 7.
Clinton’s current position is in keeping with her views in recent years on Syria, but circumstances have changed dramatically since she left office. The Islamic State has since seized large stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq; Russia is now targeting rebel fighters with warplanes and artillery; and the refugee crisis has spilled over into Europe.
The Clinton campaign portrays her support for a no-fly zone as a way of reinforcing diplomacy instead of a U.S. military showdown with Assad and Russia.
“It would reduce bloodshed by stopping the barrel bombs, reduce refugee flows by creating safe spaces for people to stay in Syria, and create leverage and momentum for a diplomatic solution,” said a Clinton aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The White House is weighing whether to send American special operations forces in small numbers into Syria to help rebels there, but the administration has voiced persistent reservations about a no-fly zone, officials said.
Advocates of the move insist that setting up the zone is not as daunting as opponents suggest and point to successful safe areas that were set up for Kurdish civilians in Iraq in the 1990s.
“All you do is you declare the no-fly zone, and if they fly into it, then they get shot down,” McCain said in an interview. “It can be done, and it can be done easily.”
Several Republican presidential hopefuls have called for the creation of a no-fly zone, including Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Donald Trump, until recently the Republican front-runner, has called for a “safe zone” to halt the flow of refugees, but he has also suggested he favors staying out of the Syrian conflict.
Shawn Brimley, a former top Pentagon official and now a director at the Center for a New American Security, said the political debate has often presented the policy choices on Syria in a misleading, simplistic way.
“A lot of us see the use of force as an ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch. You either are doing nothing or you’re invading a country,” he said. “The truth of the matter there is a huge spectrum in between.”
Obama, acknowledging the rift with Clinton over Syria at a news conference this month, complained that critics of his policy on Syria are merely tossing out “half-baked ideas.”
But when asked if he was referring to Clinton, the president tried to qualify his remarks while making clear he believed there was a difference between campaign trail rhetoric and the responsibilities of the presidency.
“Hillary Clinton is not half-baked in terms of her approach to these problems,” Obama said.
“But I also think that there’s a difference between running for president and being president, and the decisions that are being made and the discussions that I’m having with the Joint Chiefs become much more specific and require, I think, a different kind of judgment.”
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