Analysis: A stronger stance on Syria

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Hillary Clinton: A stronger stance on Syria

The United States has had a largely hands-off approach to the civil war in Syria, only entering Syria to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This approach has only been changed in order to fight ISIL. For years, Hillary Clinton has argued for a more robust response to the civil war. A potential Clinton-administration might lead to a more active U.S. engagement in the civil war.

Written  by Philip Chr. Ulrich

The Obama-administration has strived to stay clear of a U.S. engagement in the Syrian civil war, since it began in 2011. This policy has been pursued to avoid another long-term military engagement in the Middle East. However, since her time as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has argued for a more active U.S. policy against the Assad-regime.

Her stance on Syria is very similar to her stance on the civil war in Libya, where she and Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, were the main proponents for a coalition intervention to stop what was seen as a potential genocide.

In the same way, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton argued that the United States should lead a coalition effort to support the rebels in Syria. The intervention should not necessarily be in the form of aerial bombings like in Libya, but military support in some shape or form.

As early as the summer of 2012, Secretary Clinton, together with CIA Director David H. Petraeus, argued for a U.S. mission to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Assad-regime. The plan was never initiated, as the administration feared it would lead to a greater engagement, for which there was no plan. A version of the plan was put in motion following the killing of the two journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, where moderate Syrian rebels were vetted for training to be used in the fight against ISIL.

A more robust policy
As a presidential candidate Hillary Clinton continually has to balance her opinions on Syria. As Secretary of State she was, by necessity, a prominent spokesperson for the Obama administration’s hands-off policy, and therefore she must balance her criticism of how the international community has handled the crisis.

In a recent interview on MSNBC, Hillary Clinton pointed her criticism towards the international community as a whole, particularly when it comes to the large masses of refugees leaving the region.

However, her criticism of the way that the Obama-administration has handled the Syrian civil war remains, despite her initial involvement in this policy. The way that the former Secretary of State has chosen to criticize U.S. policy, is to emphasize her early resistance towards a hands-off approach. This is confirmed by the reports that both she and David Petraeus argued as early as 2012 for a program for arming Syrian rebels.

2016 and beyond
Over the coming months, the Clinton-campaign will most likely continue this line of criticism, as it will be hard for Republican opponents to argue against doing more in this situation. What would be done in a potential Clinton-administration is harder to foresee, but a greater emphasis on training moderate Syrian rebels to fight, not only ISIL but also the Assad-regime, is not unrealistic.

This would be part of a more assertive U.S. foreign policy, which can be expected if Hillary Clinton wins the 2016 election. As Secretary of State she was known to be more willing to commit the United States in international contingencies than President Obama. This involved an alliance within the administration with Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, when it came to the commitment of additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan, as well as a break with Gates when it came to involvement in the Libyan civil war. Here Gates did not support engaging the United States, while Clinton and Power did.

This greater willingness to use U.S. military strength would most likely continue in a presidential administration. To what degree a future foreign policy will be guided by more idealism, and the consequent willingness to use force, is difficult to determine, but Clinton’s willingness to use force in Libya shows that idealism might play a more prominent role in a potential administration.

Present statements by Hillary Clinton are thereby good indicators of a more assertive future foreign policy in a Clinton-administration, while maintaining the same standpoint, which Hillary Clinton has stood for since her time in the Obama-administration.

Philip Chr. Ulrich holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Southern Denmark. He analyzes American foreign and defense policy for the Danish website Kongressen.com. He has previously worked as head of section at the Royal Danish Defence College, where he published several briefs on U.S. defense and foreign policy. He has also completed an internship at the Lessons Learned / Development Section at the Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence. He also has his own website and Facebook page where he makes updates and comments on current events in U.S. foreign policy. Find his website: www.philipulrich.dk and follow him on facebook.com/philipulrich.dk or on Twitter: @pc_ulrich

Photo: Barbara Kinney.

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