Alex Rowell

Hillary’s Syria policy

NOW asks a Syrian activist who has met Clinton and her former Syria adviser at Foggy Bottom about the Democratic nominee’s plans

Delegates cheer as a screen displays Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivering remarks to the crowd during the evening session on the second day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 26, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Earlier this year, a small group of Syrian-American political activists affiliated with the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime met privately in Washington, D.C., with Hillary Clinton. The purpose of the meeting was, perhaps unsurprisingly, to discuss the ongoing war in Syria, as well as explore ways a future American administration – such as the one Clinton hopes to lead starting in January 2017 – might act to shape events in the devastated country in ways more agreeable to the opposition than the course taken by the incumbent president.


Though it had by then been three years since Secretary of State Clinton had worked in any official capacity on Syria policy, she’d evidently kept a close eye on developments in the interim. An attendee at the meeting recalls her as deeply knowledgeable of even granular details of the situation on the ground. More significantly, she was also highly receptive to the activists’ view that more palpable, concrete steps to counter the violence meted out by Assad and his allies were required from the United States.


“I was very impressed with how attuned she was to every detail of the situation,” said Kenan Rahmani, a Washington-based law student and member of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, who has traveled extensively through opposition-held territory in Syria since the outbreak of the conflict.


“She knew about Russian attacks on hospitals in Aleppo. She knew about the siege in Madaya (before it had become a major news story). She was familiar with the players in the newer iterations of the Syrian opposition,” Rahmani told NOW in an email.


It was an encounter that would leave a lasting imprint on Rahmani, who is now supporting Clinton’s presidential bid. On the campaign trail, Clinton has notably made a more forceful approach in Syria part of her foreign policy platform, pledging in November 2015 to “retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units” and even “impose no-fly zones” over northern Syria “that will stop Assad from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air.” Nor were these mere one-off remarks, later to be retracted or forgotten: in April this year, challenged by dovish rival Bernie Sanders in a live debate to defend her no-fly zone suggestion, Clinton stood her ground. “Yes, I do still support a no-fly zone because I think we need to put in safe havens for those poor Syrians who are fleeing both Assad and ISIS and so they have some place they can be safe […] Nobody stood up to Assad and removed him, and we have had a far greater disaster in Syria than we are currently dealing with right now in Libya,” said the candidate confirmed Tuesday as the official Democratic Party nominee.


What gets said on the trail and what ends up happening in the Oval Office are, of course, often different things (see Obama’s pledge to close Guantánamo Bay). Yet Rahmani, for one, doesn’t believe Clinton’s no-fly zone talk is empty posturing.


“Hillary Clinton and her advisers have been very clear--in public, not just in private--that they believe a no-fly zone is a humanitarian imperative,” he told NOW. “The aerial bombardment by the Assad regime is the primary tool of death and destruction in Syria. Hillary Clinton understands that the refugee crisis destabilizing the region and Europe can only be dealt with by addressing the main threat driving the refugees to flee.”


Asked about her proposal to “retool and ramp up” military support to the opposition – which at least one Clinton acquaintance, the journalist and author Mark Landler, suggests may include the provision of MANPADS anti-aircraft missiles – Rahmani said, “It's not clear exactly what measures [she] might take,” but she “would not rule out any options that may help to advance the overall policy.” In general, he told NOW, “I predict that she would be less reluctant than President Obama to explore more coercive measures to end the conflict.”


That’s a sentiment shared by others who have seen Clinton’s thinking on Syria up close. Frederic Hof was Secretary Clinton’s Special Adviser on Syria at the State Department until his resignation in September 2012. While he declines to wager on the specifics of a hypothetical President Clinton’s Syria policy, Hof does believe his former boss – the daughter of a naval officer, who herself applied unsuccessfully to join the Marines in the 1970s – has fewer personal or ideological misgivings than Obama in general about the idea of employing military force when deemed advantageous.


“I think President Obama has convinced himself that what happened in terms of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003 suggests that any attempt by the United States to push back militarily in Syria, to exact some kind of a price [from] Bashar al-Assad will inevitably result in catastrophe – invasion, occupation, the whole thing,” Hof, now director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told NOW.


I don’t think Secretary Clinton as president would be imprisoned by that particular belief.”


Clinton would also differ from Obama, Hof expects, in her perspective vis-à-vis the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran; a milestone of Obama’s legacy that critics argue has made the president wary of opposing Tehran’s regional ambitions, in Syria above all.


“I think the president is concerned that a more resolute pushback against Bashar al-Assad, particularly in the area of civilian protection, could somehow alienate the key leaders in Iran, starting with the Supreme Leader, and inspire Iran to walk away from the nuclear agreement,” said Hof. “I don’t think that Secretary Clinton as president would be constrained in that way. It’s just my sense that she understands the United States can do two things at once, and that there are elements of the nuclear agreement that are obviously very attractive to Iran, and the possibility of Iran just picking up and walking away [is] probably relatively small.”


Moreover, Clinton and Obama are polar opposites in terms of their regard for traditional foreign policy advisers, according to both Hof and Rahmani. While Obama is famously derisive of Washington’s foreign policy coterie (“the Blob” in the phrasing of Ben Rhodes, one of very few aides to have the president’s ear), Clinton’s campaign has already amassed a large team of advisers; “a tremendous foreign policy operation, almost like an actual government,” according to Rahmani. At the top of that operation sit Jake Sullivan and Laura Rosenberger, whom Rahmani describes as “both very involved in tracking developments in Syria.” Others include Center for a New American Security CEO Michèle Flournoy, tipped to be Clinton’s defense secretary, who has advocated using greater military “coercion” against the Assad regime; and Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy Director Tamara Cofman Wittes, who derided Obama’s Syria policy in testimony to Congress in May as “a signal failure to learn the lessons of the post-Cold War period.”


Then, of course, there is Tim Kaine, the Virginia senator unveiled Friday as Clinton’s running mate. A member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, Kaine voted in the wake of the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks in Damascus to launch punitive strikes against the Assad regime, and in 2015 wrote to the president urging “the rapid establishment of one or more humanitarian safe zones” in Syria to “provide essential protection for displaced Syrian civilians and a safe transit route for desperately needed humanitarian supplies.”


A relatively low-key character who once described himself as “the most boring man in politics,” Kaine’s nomination as potential vice president was nevertheless met with excitement in Syrian opposition circles. Asked whether it gave him further confidence in Clinton’s resolve to see her Syria pledges through, Rahmani was unequivocal.


“Yes, definitely.”

The Democratic presidential candidate has repeatedly pledged support for a “no-fly zone” in northern Syria (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

On the campaign trail, Clinton has notably made a more forceful approach in Syria part of her foreign policy platform.

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    At least she's no "bigot". If you look up the term in the A. Rowell dictionary of the English language, edited by Theresa May and Boris Johnson, it refers to anyone who believes that refugees (e.g. Palestinian, Syrian, and others) should be allowed to return to their homes.

    July 30, 2016

  • doughboy

    One more regime change. One more war of choice. One more military intervention. One more quagmire. She supported and still does, the war in Afghanistan. She voted for the war in Iraq. A mess that keeps on giving. She used the excuse of humanitarian help in Libya, only to have that country descend into chaos and our embassy attacked. Now, it is Syria's turn. There are no democratic/secular rebels--they live in America, England, or France. Those jihadists fighting the war do not represent the majority of Syrians living there. They will turn Syria into a new "Libya." I will not vote for Clinton, I will not vote for a warmonger.

    July 29, 2016