Less than one week after the Paris attacks, Hillary Clinton called for intensifying the U.S. attack on terror groups by launching an “intelligence surge,” deploying more special operations forces to Iraq and Syria, directly arming Kurd and Sunni fighters, and establishing a Syrian no-fly zone to undergird U.S. efforts at peace talks.
Delivered Thursday at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton’s detailed plan distinguished herself from her 2016 presidential campaign rivals, whose post-Paris pronouncements have consisted generally of sound bites (or even inaccuracies), and from Obama, whom critics have hammered as too passive.
The former Secretary of State appeared less the candidate and more the stateswoman, delivering remarks in a commanding voice to an audience of foreign policy veterans, and later sitting for live questions with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. Clinton disparaged the Obama administration’s reliance on airstrikes to hit ISIS, just weeks after Pentagon and White House officials reluctantly began to call U.S. operations there actual “combat.” Like other candidates, she said additional ground forces would be needed to hold territory taken back from ISIS — but stressed it should be done by local forces helped by U.S. troops, not a large-scale American military presence. And she outlined how she’d like the U.S. to lead the international reaction to the Syrian refugees crisis: by calling for a balance of tight security and a global donor conference.
“We should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS,” Clinton said. “If we have 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.”
Clinton opened her speech with a head-on challenge to those who would close U.S. borders to Syrian refugees.
“After a major terrorist attack, every society faces a choice between fear and resolve,” she said. “The world’s great democracies can’t sacrifice our values or turn our backs on those in need. Therefore, we must choose resolve. And we must lead the world to meet this threat.”
She called for continued vigilance in screening potential immigrants from Syria, but “we cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values and our humanitarian obligations—turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee—that is just not who we are. We are better than that.”
Clinton outlined a three-part plan to defeat ISIS, to disrupt and dismantle the networks that finance terrorism, and to harden U.S., European, and allied defenses against external and homegrown threats. Those are all missions the U.S. already has undertaken, but Clinton is calling for ramping them all up to match ISIS’s growing threat.
“ISIS is demonstrating new ambition, reach and capabilities. We have to break the group’s momentum and then its back,” she said. “Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS, but to defeat and destroy ISIS. But we have learned that we can score victories over terrorist leaders and networks, only to face metastasizing threats down the road, so we also have to play and win the long game.”
Militarily, Clinton called for sending more special operations forces to Syria than Obama’s 50-man cap allows. She said the U.S. may need to give greater flexibility for American troops to embed with local forces and give them authority to call in airstrikes, which is only a baby step beyond Obama’s current position but an important one for commanders looking for more overt ways to help forward fighters — especially as coalition forces inch toward expected assaults to retake Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq.
“It’s time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate and deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria. That starts with a more effective coalition air campaign, with more allied planes, more strikes and a broader target set,” she said.
Clinton also called for boosting in U.S. intelligence, although she did not specify any budget or personnel requests.
“A key obstacle standing in the way is a shortage of good intelligence about ISIS and its operations, so we need an immediate intelligence surge in the region, including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East and even closer partnership with regional intelligence services,” she said.
In Syria, Clinton said she supports the U.S. diplomatic efforts to end the civil war, citing historical efforts in Lebanon and Bosnia, and said although Russian President Vladimir Putin was “actually making things somewhat worse” by backing President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow would have an “important role” in finding a political end to the war.
“There is no alternative to a political transition that allows Syrians to end Assad’s rule,” she said, sticking with a demand that would seem to impede Russian cooperation with a no-fly zone. Clinton felt Russia’s focus on Assad was changing toward ISIS and hoped that French President Francois Hollande’s upcoming visit with Putin would sway him toward “getting Russia to play a role in that” political solution, which would require safe havens for Syrians to receive humanitarian relief.
“I believe the no-fly zone is merited and can be implemented,” she said. “I think we have a chance to do that now.” Said it would help on the ground and would give Secretary of State John Kerry leverage in the new peace talks.
In Iraq, Clinton said the U.S. should spur a “second Arab awakening” in Anbar province—a goal little heard anymore in the Pentagon—and get more Iraqis into the fight, but she also suggested the U.S. should be prepared to step in and escalate the war even without Baghdad’s blessing, if needed. Kurds have fought hard while the Iraqi National Army has “struggled.”
“A ground campaign in Iraq will only succeed if more Iraqi Sunnis join the fight,” she said. “Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS. But if Baghdad won’t do that, the coalition should do so directly.”
Adding tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops to the war, she said, only “complicates that, in my opinion.” Instead, Clinton argued, the U.S. needs to keep pressuring local forces and “get them to change their priorities and work together.”
Clinton prodded regional leaders, as well. “We must get them to carry their share of the burden with military, intelligence and financial contributions as well as using their influence with fighters and tribes in Iraq and Syria.” She didn’t say how she would get Middle East rulers to budge more than they have, though, and said nothing of Gulf countries.
“Countries like Jordan have offered more and we should take them up on it. Because ultimately our efforts will only succeed if the Arabs and Turks step up in a big way. This is their fight and they need to act like it. So far however, Turkey has been more focused on the Kurds than countering ISIS…but the threat from ISIS cannot wait. As difficult as it may be, we need to get Turkey to stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS and become a full partner in our coalition efforts against ISIS.”
Asked how she would get Saudi Arabian leaders to cooperate, she said while they remain focused on Iran and Yemen, “I would hope to draw them into a broader reading of what’s going on in the region,” she said, beyond the Sunni-Shiite divide. “They need to understand they have to help us stabilize at least Northern Syria to start with, while trying to come up with some resolution of the civil war. And I hope they will be more willing to be involved.”