This is the second of a two-part series by non-resident associate Aron Lund, who examines the policies toward Syria of the two main contenders for the presidency of the United States, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The first commentary, on Trump’s policies, appeared on Friday and can be read here.
With Donald Trump now mired in scandal, it is looking increasingly probable that Hillary Clinton will be the 45th president of the United States, a country that holds many of the keys to Syria’s political future.
So what would a Clinton presidency mean for Syria? On the one hand, it would guarantee a certain continuity in U.S. Syria policy, which Hillary Clinton was instrumental in shaping as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. But she has also spoken out against President Barack Obama’s reluctance to escalate against the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.
The Clinton campaign website states that she would “conduct more intense and effective air strikes” and “provide additional support to Kurdish and Sunni rebel forces on the ground,” while creating “a coalition no-fly zone in the air coupled with safe zones on the ground.” These moves would not be directly aimed at toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but rather would seek to accomplish humanitarian goals while building “leverage and momentum for a diplomatic solution that removes Assad and brings Syria’s communities together” to fight the self-declared Islamic State. This is still Clinton’s official platform, as she confirmed in the presidential debate on October 9.
These views place her starkly at odds with Trump, a Russian favorite whose anti-interventionist leanings suggest he would look to avoid any conflict with Damascus and Moscow. But what could have been an informative and ideologically charged debate between two candidates on opposite ends of the policy spectrum never came to pass. Instead, Trump’s chaotic presidential bid and his manifest lack of interest in foreign policy have allowed Clinton to maintain a certain ambiguity about her future intentions in Syria.
Overruled by Obama
There is no disputing that Clinton takes a close interest in the Syrian conflict. “As Obama’s secretary of state she worked very hard to get the political opposition organized and jump start a political transition, while organizing an enormous relief effort for refugees and internally displaced Syrians,” recalled Steven Simon in an email interview. He is a history professor at Amherst College, who served as senior director for Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council from 2011 until 2012.
However, Clinton ultimately failed to persuade Obama of the wisdom of her more confrontational strategy. In summer 2012, she backed a CIA proposal to supply U.S. arms directly to the Syrian opposition, which Obama ultimately rejected in favor of more limited nonlethal support and coordination.
It would not be until after Clinton left office in February 2013 that the White House formally approved the direct arming of Syrian rebels. According to the German Marshall Fund’s Derek Chollet, who was at the time the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and who spoke to me by phone in summer, the administration had by then become “more confident that the supplies we would provide would stand a chance of bringing about the desired results, not just make things worse.”
A hawk or dove?
Clinton’s early support for arming the Syrian rebels has strengthened the perception of her as a foreign policy hawk. This was also the impression conveyed by a widely read Clinton profile in the New York Times last April, which highlighted her strong interest in military affairs and ties to activist foreign policy circles. However, it is not a unanimous view.
As part of her presidential bid, Hillary Clinton has gathered an impressive roster of foreign-policy specialists and former officials into a loose network presided over by Laura Rosenberger and Jake Sullivan, two former State Department officials. This has resulted in the creation of a Middle East working group reportedly led by Derek Chollet, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and Prem Kumar.
Clinton’s network spans a broad range of opinion, by Washington standards. It includes several high-profile skeptics of U.S. escalation, such as Chollet and Philip Gordon, who formerly handled Middle East issues at the National Security Council and has argued that the administration should abort its campaign against Assad. Kumar, too, has suggested “freezing” the conflict instead of trying to edge Assad out of office. On balance, however, most senior names seem to lean toward the Clinton brand of liberal interventionism, with many already on record as criticizing Obama for having been too cautious in Syria. Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has argued that there is little use in trying to salvage the institutions of an Assad-led central government and that a primary U.S. goal should be to minimize Iranian influence in Syria. Former under secretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, who is widely thought to be Clinton’s favorite for the top job at the Pentagon, supports the use of “limited military coercion” to boost U.S. influence in Syria and remove Assad. The choice of Tim Kaine as Clinton’s vice president further reinforces the activist side of her policy team, since the Virginia senator is a prominent advocate of using “a little bit of military muscle” in Syria.
But some argue that Clinton’s interventionist reputation has been exaggerated. “Campaigning is not governing,” says the Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller, who worked on Middle Eastern affairs in both Democratic and Republican administrations. In a phone interview earlier this year, he argued that Clinton is at heart a cautious politician whose main focus will likely be on domestic issues, given that the country will need time to heal after an economic crisis and a divisive presidential election. “Will she order a review of our options with the Syrian opposition and on how to deal with the Russians?” asked Miller, before continuing:
Yeah, she might do that. But I suspect the decision points will come back and be no less painful than they are now when faced by this president. Which means this: If you want to play with these other actors, who are ready to sacrifice much, you’ll have to be prepared to introduce new elements on the ground. I find it hard to believe in this.
Indeed, virtually all of Clinton’s advisers oppose an outright military-led ousting of Assad and many seem to think that the road to peace in Syria runs through Moscow, one way or the other. For example, in an address to the Asia Society last May, Sullivan repeated calls for U.S.-imposed safe zones in Syria, but also stated that there was ultimately “no solution that didn’t involve the U.S. and Russia working together.”
Being hit by Syria's reality
“Hillary, by instinct, is clearly more hawkish than Obama on this stuff, although probably not as hawkish as she is portrayed,” I was told by one former administration official who supports the Clinton campaign.
Another prominent voice, the former ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford, who now works as a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, seemed to agree. “No one should expect any fast, major changes on U.S. policy towards Syria, regardless of whether Trump or Clinton wins in November,” he wrote me in an online interview earlier this year:
Clinton likely will be inclined to develop more leverage in Syria in order to achieve a real political negotiation. However, Russian forces operating in Syria are a reality, and as a pragmatist, she will have to find ways to build that leverage without directly confronting Russian military forces inside Syria. That will take some time. There is no one-shot approach that will sharply boost flagging U.S. credibility and influence in Syria.
That is also the view of Frederic C. Hof, who worked as Clinton’s Syria adviser until September 2012 and is now director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. In an email interview in summer, he wrote that Clinton would probably be “open to a serious examination of limited military steps designed to exact a price for and deter mass murder” by Assad’s forces, but cautioned that her options would ultimately be determined by conditions in spring 2017:
Moscow and Tehran understand this. This is why they seek a military victory for Assad now, while the White House is paralyzed. They assume, of course, that Barack Obama will remain inert no matter what they and their client regime do.
In sum, should the U.S. electorate choose Hillary Clinton, this could certainly lead to a stepped-up role in Syria. Yet, many ambiguities remain in Clinton’s message on Syria, including the details of her no-fly zone proposal, with which she will not be forced to grapple until after the election. With dozens of advisers and would-be senior appointees now jockeying to influence the future direction of policy, while Assad and Putin seek to establish facts on the ground, a victory for Clinton on November 8 would in many ways represent only the beginning of a new U.S. debate over Syria.