Clinton’s Syria proposals are problematic
In the midst of a recent debate between candidates for US president Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, which observers have called the nastiest in decades, there was a moment from Clinton that seemed to slip by unnoticed.
The discussion had turned to Syria. Trump took the opportunity to attack Clinton for past transgressions, real or imagined. She, a former US secretary of State, actually talked about her approach to handling future US involvement in that horrible conflict.
What she said was a dramatic departure from current policy under US President Barack Obama and it foreshadows serious potential problems with Russia and Turkey.
Clinton — who looks set to win the US election, despite the efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hackers — blamed many of the war’s atrocities on “Russian aggression” and called for a no-fly zone. She said, if elected president, she would arm the Kurds, whom she described as the United States’ most dependable ally against the Islamic State (ISIS).
There is a lot to unpack in those few statements, almost none of it good.
The Obama administration has carefully avoided the idea of a no-fly zone because to create one would almost immediate lead to a direct confrontation with Russia. Granted, if it was very narrowly defined it might work but it would be so insignificant there is serious concern it would accomplish anything.
Clinton may be giving voice to her frustrations with Putin’s obvious efforts to help her opponent and she may be just trying to rattle him. The reality of taking such a position, however, is fraught with too many dangers to the United States, especially in dealing with a figure like Putin who always seems to be spoiling for a fight.
Then there is the statement about arming the Kurds fighting ISIS. While this may have been ignored by the US media, there is little doubt that it made government officials in Ankara sit up. Clinton acknowledged that this might cause issues in the region but that is like saying if I pull the pin on this grenade, it might explode.
Relations between the United States and Turkey are in rough shape after this summer’s failed coup. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to think that the United States was too slow to condemn the coup plotters and is furious that the Americans are not automatically handing over the man he holds ultimately responsible, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.
Imagine where US-Turkey relations might go if Clinton makes good on her proposal to arm Kurdish fighters, whom Erdogan considers terrorists and the most direct threat to his country and regime. It is not hard to imagine that it would deal a blow to US-Turkey relations that would take years, if not generations, to restore.
It is easy to understand Clinton’s desire to try something new in Syria. Many experts say that the Obama administration’s actions have been misguided almost from the start of the conflict in 2011. In fact, some have taken to calling Aleppo, the northern Syrian city that has been the site of so much violence, Obama’s Sarajevo, an unflattering allusion to the fate of that once beleaguered and violence-ridden Balkan city.
But it is going to take a nuanced approach to make a difference, one that is probably tougher than the Obama’s administration’s position but also deals with the reality of Russian involvement in Syria and its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Arming the Kurds is not going to be a productive exercise unless it can be done in a way that reassures Turkey.
In other words, it will not be easy. And it might not happen. Actions that Clinton can propose as a presidential candidate may not be so easy to carry out if she is elected.