French Jet Fighters Prepare to Attack ISIS in Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Hillary Rodham Clinton repeated her support on Saturday for a safe humanitarian area in northern Syria through the policing of a no-fly zone despite concerns expressed earlier this month by White House and Pentagon officials that the plan will require significant US forces on the ground.
At a Democratic presidential debate alongside rivals Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, Clinton – often cast as hawkish by critics to her left – said she considered the plan essential to providing the US with leverage in negotiations over the end of Syria’s bloody civil war.
“I am advocating the no-fly zone both because I think it would help us on the ground to protect Syrians,” she said at the debate in New Hampshire, the first primary state. “I’m also advocating it because I think it gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia.”
But such a policy would require “substantial” ground forces and would put the US military at risk of a direct confrontation with the Syrian regime and Russian forces, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at a Senate hearing on December 9.
At the same hearing, US Air Force General Paul Selva noted that Syrian integrated air defense and radar systems were activated recently and would pose additional obstacles to the plan.
Clinton says she opposes any significant deployment of US troops to Syria for the same reasons the policy is opposed by President Barack Obama, that such a policy would provide more targets for Islamic State terrorists and serve as the ultimate recruitment tool, she said.
“Of course, it has to be deconflicted with the Russians,” Clinton said, asked by ABC News’ Martha Raddatz whether she would be willing to shoot down Moscow’s jet fighters.
“I do not think it would come to that. We are already deconflicting airspace,” Clinton continued. “Now that Russia has joined us in the [United Nations] Security Council, has adopted an agreement that we hashed out [on] a long day in Geneva three years ago, now I think we can have those conversations. The no-fly zone, I would hope, would be also shared by Russia.”
Those in favor of a no-fly zone argue the plan offers humanitarian, as well as strategic, benefit. Such a safe space, they say, would halt the refugee flow gripping Europe; provide a respite to those internally displaced in the war-torn country; and provide diplomats from the West with leverage in their negotiations with Russia and Iran over the future of Syria.
Carter and Selva said that, because of the extensive costs of the plan and the likelihood it would increase conflict, they had not brought the proposal to Obama with their endorsements.
Both of Clinton’s Democratic rivals oppose the plan, and expressed concern on Saturday night that Clinton is too quick to exercise American power with military force. But the Democratic front-runner, ahead of those rivals by double digits in all national polls, appears to be positioning for the general election, where several Republican candidates vying for their own nomination have cast her as part of a failed policy continuum in line with the Obama administration.
While Obama remains popular among Democrats – more than 60 percent of Democratic voters would like to see a continuation of his policies after his presidency, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey – only a third of Americans polled trust the administration in its handling of terrorist threats against the homeland.
Clinton has sought to thread that needle, retaining Democratic support while expanding her appeal on the key issue of national security in preparation for the general election.
But one comment from the debate in which she suggested the president’s current strategy in Syria is working was seized upon by Republican candidates.
“We now finally are where we need to be,” she said. “We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS, which is a danger to us, as well as the region, and we finally have a UN Security Council resolution bringing the world together to go after a political transition in Syria.”