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A growing number of Democrats are joining GOP voices in calling for a no-fly zone or a safe zone in Syria where civilians and opposition fighters can go without fear of attack — a step the Obama administration does not back.
The calls come after the spectacle of millions of desperate Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, and an increasing sense that the Pentagon's program to train moderate rebels is failing.
They continued even after Russian aircraft entered Syrian airspace this week to go after groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, including rebels backed by the U.S.
Former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonFederal, state courts at odds on Michigan recount Denzel Washington blasts media for selling 'BS' Trump opening act questions Clinton's popular vote lead MORE on Thursday called for no-fly zones in Syria, breaking with the administration a day after Russian bombs began dropping.
"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, to try to provide some way to stem the flow of refugees," she said an interview with an NBC affiliate.
Clinton’s endorsement of a no-fly zone puts her in line with Republican hawks and advocates of a more robust response in Syria.
Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director and commander of U.S. Central Command, recommended recently that the U.S. should tell Assad to stop dropping barrel bombs and enforce a no-fly zone if he did not comply.
He also recommended establishing humanitarian safe zones protected by coalition air power, where the moderate Syrian opposition could train and organize and internally displaced Syrians could find refuge.
"We have that capability," he said at a Sept. 22 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
At that hearing, two Democratic senators who were originally against a safe zone said they now side with committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"I was not an original supporter when Sen. McCain raised the idea of a no-fly humanitarian zone in the fall of 2013," said Sen. Tim KaineTim KaineRepublicans tie Trump's Defense pick to funding fight Lawmakers haggle over funding bill as shutdown nears Clinton to throw thank-you party for millionaire donors MORE (D-Va.).
"I think we would've been wise to do it when Senator McCain suggested it. And I think we would still be wise to do it," he added.
"I hate it when the chairman's right, but he has been talking about this for two years, and in retrospect, I think he was right,” added Sen. Angus KingAngus KingThis Week in Cybersecurity: Dems press for information on Russian hacks Angus King: Trump's not draining swamp, he's adding alligators Overnight Cybersecurity: Last-ditch effort to stop expanded hacking powers fails MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats.
After the U.S. reached an agreement with Turkey in late August to bring it into the coalition opposing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), there were hopes that the two sides had also agreed on creating a sort of safe zone within northern Syria.
"There ought to be a piece of Syria where people can go for medical care and know that they're not going to be killed by these barrel bombs," Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinRepublicans tie Trump's Defense pick to funding fight Lawmakers haggle over funding bill as shutdown nears Overnight Finance: Funding bill expected tonight | Trump takes on Boeing | House rejects push for IRS impeachment vote | Dow hits new high MORE (D-Ill.) said on the Senate floor on Sept. 15. "I know the administration is working on that with Turkey. And it's going very slowly.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Wednesday said he knows there's been “decision memos after decision memos” on the president’s desk about an “air exclusion zone” along the border with Turkey.
But while defense officials in July had said the two sides were discussing a safe zone focused on a roughly 70 mile stretch of land along the border of Turkey, discussion since then has focused on the challenges of implementing it.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, Commander of U.S. Central Command, said that although the U.S. had the capability, he would not recommend a no-fly zone or a safe zone.
"It will take a ground force to be able to protect the refugees if we do that," he said at a Sept. 16 hearing. "I don't see the force available to be able to protect them currently. … So I would not recommend it at this point in time."
Earlier this week, Lisa Monaco, the president's adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, said safe zones are "very resource-intensive."
"To actually have a safe zone, to undertake the protection of that safe zone, particularly in as complex an environment as Syria, when it's very hard to tell who is fighting who, to actually undertake the protection of that zone, can be quite a hard undertaking," she said Wednesday on PBS's "Charlie Rose."
The arguments have convinced other Democrats on the Armed Services Committee, such as ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who say that while it's a worthy idea, it’s very difficult and costly to implement.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), told reporters Thursday that a safe zone would “require exquisite ISR" to verify whether it’s being violated.
“It would require human intelligence, geo-spatial intelligence, signals intelligence, it would take the whole gamut," he said. “You got a safe zone, and you got a car driving in the safe zone. Do you bomb it? Well, what if it's filled with women and children? How do you know? So now you got thousands of miles of roads, and hundreds of cars — well how do you do that?”
“So I think it's easy in concept to say ‘let’s create a safe zone,’ but if you want to do it with just air power, then you need to know really the details of what you’re trying to accomplish. It could be difficult,” he said.
However, he said, it would really come down to the president's priorities.
“The president has so much stuff that he can deal with, he’s got Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, other areas of the world, what would the president’s priorities be?” he added.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, told a Washington audience Wednesday that American military power cannot fill certain vacuums, especially in the Middle East.
“The fact of the matter is not only do we think that that is not good in terms of our resource allocation, and the risk to our troops, we don't think there could be a military solution that could be imposed on Syria,” he said at the Washington Ideas Forum.
“We cannot continue to be in a cycle where all of our resource allocation, all of our attention is trying to fix fundamentally broken societies in the Middle East,” he said.
“The Asia Pacific is the largest emerging market in the world. That's going to matter a lot more to people in the 21st century than the Middle East is.”