Debate rages in Clinton camp over Syria policy

Debate rages in Clinton camp over Syria policy
© Getty Images

A debate is raging among allies of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDem strategist says Clinton ‘absolutely’ has a role to play in 2020 Left-leaning journalist: Sanders would be 'formidable candidate' against Trump Clinton hits EPA for approval of pesticide dump: ‘We need bees!’ MORE over what to do about Syria, a hot spot for terrorism that is likely to be a foreign policy problem for the next president.

Clinton, the former secretary of State and current presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has advocated for a more assertive military U.S. posture in the country, but not all of her foreign policy advisers agree, raising questions about what path she would take if she were to win the White House.


Away from the commotion of the campaign, several prominent Clinton advisers are making their views known.

Michèle Flournoy, who is considered a top candidate to be Clinton’s Defense secretary, over the weekend called the Obama administration’s policy on Syria’s civil war “a mistake.”  

“The United States has assumed that this problem is not as important and has heretofore avoided involvement except for pursuing diplomatic negotiations. That’s a mistake,” she and co-author Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), wrote in The Washington Post.

Flournoy, who is now at CNAS, called for exploring limited military options such as missiles and other long-range weapons to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, Russia, from bombing civilians and moderate rebels. She also put forward that argument in an interview last month to Defense One. 

Other Clinton advisers disagree with that approach, including Phil Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former Obama administration official. 

Last month, Gordon published a paper recommending the administration drop its demand that Assad leave Syria as part of a negotiated political transition. He also advocated that position during a roundtable with reporters in May. 

The Clinton campaign has stressed that the breadth and diversity of viewpoints among its advisers is an advantage of its foreign policy network.

“There’s a big debate that’s going on among Syria watchers both in government and outside government,” former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told The Hill in a phone interview. 

He said one of the central disagreements among experts is whether Assad will ever negotiate. Some believe he will never come to the table, which would make increased U.S. military pressure futile.

Others, including Ford, believe that while military pressure might lead to escalation in the short term, it would ultimately make Russia and Iran more inclined to negotiate.

Last month, 51 State Department officials submitted a dissent cable on the Obama administration’s policy, arguing for the use of limited military strikes if Assad continues to bomb civilians in violation of a cessation of hostilities.

Some of the dissenters said they hoped the cable would strengthen the arguments of Clinton advisers like Flournoy. Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is among the advisers to Clinton who are supportive of the dissent cable, according to a source close to the signatories.

Wittes and Ford will have an opportunity to expand upon their views during a fundraiser being held by young foreign policy professionals for Clinton this Thursday in Washington, D.C.  

As secretary of State, Clinton supported training and equipping rebels against Assad early in the civil war, before the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. She also backed President Obama’s declaration in August 2012 of a red line for using military force should Assad use chemical weapons, according to Ford.

Clinton, however, had left the State Department before Assad launched a major chemical weapons attack in 2013. 

Ford said after the outbreak of the civil war that Obama officials discussed a no-fly zone in Syria, but no one inside the government was strongly pushing for it. Instead, officials opted for a negotiated settlement. Toward that end, Clinton negotiated with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in June 2012, which resulted in the Geneva Communiqué. 

On the campaign trail, Clinton has called for establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, which would likely entail U.S. military aircraft patrolling the skies and possibly taking out Syrian and Russian aircraft. 

Ambassador Frederic C. Hof, Obama’s former special adviser for transition in Syria, said it is hard to tell where Clinton will end up.

“I would suspect that Secretary Clinton will not allow much in the way of differences to emerge between her and President Obama,” he said. “What this will probably translate into is no great critiques of Syria policy coming out of the Clinton campaign.” 

Hof said he expects Clinton’s Syria policy to be different from Obama’s but added she could, “depending on the advice of her advisers, depending on her own judgment, end up in the same place, in terms of actions taken and not taken.” 

He added: “I think because she is experienced in foreign affairs, Secretary Clinton will listen a lot more to advisers. ... Real experience in this case means understanding first of all that you don’t know everything.

“It means that you have to be positively curious about the different points of views out there in your interagency system. I suspect that Secretary Clinton would bring that to the table.”