(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – After spending years by his side urging a more aggressive American role in the Syrian conflict, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton on Thursday once again called on US President Barack Obama to expand US military operations there, advocating he establish a no-fly zone in the country’s north.
In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton lamented over the president’s policies at the beginning of the war that avoided intensive arming and training of Syria’s rebels fighting for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad. “We had an opportunity,” the Democratic presidential contender argued, that has now passed.
She nevertheless argued for an intensification of support for the Free Syrian Army, for the establishment of safe zones on the country’s border with Turkey and for an “intelligence surge” that would provide the US-led coalition against Islamic State with a longer target list in its air campaign.
The United States, Clinton said, should work with the coalition and with Syria’s neighbors “to impose no-fly zones that will stop Assad from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air. Opposition forces on the ground, with material support from the coalition, could then help create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country, rather than fleeing toward Europe.”
She continued, “This combined approach would help enable the opposition to retake the remaining stretch of the Turkish border from ISIS, choking off its supply lines. It would also give us new leverage in the diplomatic process that Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pursuing.”
Clinton has long advocated for a more aggressive approach in Syria, now fourand- a-half years embroiled in civil war. Assad, backed by the governments of Russia and Iran, remains at the center of the conflict, which has taken the lives of nearly 300,000 people and displaced over half of the country’s population.
As state institutions deteriorated throughout the wartorn nation, al-Qaida in Iraq exploited the vacuum created by the conflict and took root in Raqqa, a city in eastern Syria. The group rebranded as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and ultimately secured itself territory, declaring an Islamic State caliphate.
“ISIS is demonstrating new ambition, reach, and capabilities,” Clinton said. “We have to break the group’s momentum, and then its back. Our goal is not to deter and contain ISIS, but to defeat and destroy ISIS.”
The goal, she continued, must be to “smash the would-be caliphate” with a “more effective coalition air campaign, with more allied planes, more strikes and a broader target set.
“We should be honest about the fact that, to be successful, air-strikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS,” Clinton added. But “if we’ve learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities.
We can help them, and we should. But we cannot substitute for them.”
Also operating throughout northern Iraq, Clinton offered tough words for Baghdad, where the government, backed strongly by Shia leadership in Iran, has struggled to maintain unity among its Shia and Sunni populations.
“Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces,” Clinton argued. “But if Baghdad won’t do that, the coalition should do so directly.”
Clinton delivered the speech less than a week after 129 people were slaughtered in Paris by terrorists loyal to Islamic State – an act that has galvanized France and refocused the 2016 US presidential campaign on to national security. Several Republican candidates are now calling for a “pause” in Obama’s plan to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Clinton joined the president in opposition to that proposal on Thursday. “The world’s great democracies,” she said, “can’t sacrifice our values or turn our backs to those in need.”