Clinton Differs With Administration on Syria No-Fly Zone, Arming the Kurds

By Patrick Goodenough | November 20, 2015 | 4:25am EST
Kurdish fighters watch smoke rising at Islamic State of Iraq and Syria positions in northern Iraq in January 2015. (AP Photo, File)

( – Democrat Hillary Clinton in a speech Thursday set out several points of difference with the administration she once served in, including calls to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria and to bypass the Iraqi government, if necessary, and arm Kurdish fighters directly.

In a foreign policy and security speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, the presidential candidate laid out a strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) as part of a “broader struggle against radical jihadism that is bigger than any one group.”

She said the U.S. should work with coalition partners to impose a no-fly zone in northern Syria, near the 560 mile-long border with Turkey, to protect civilians and opposition forces from air attack by the Assad regime.

“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 said.

Asked during a question-and-answer session about the potential of a no-fly zone provoking Russia, which are carrying out airstrikes in support of the regime, she said, “I would certainly expect to and hope to work with the Russians.”

Clinton was also asked about differences between her and the administration on the question of a no-fly zone, and the fact that former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, has also opposed it.

“I fully respect Bob and his knowledge about the difficulties of implementing a no-fly zone,” she replied. “But if you look at where we are right now, we have to try to clear the air of the bombing attacks that are still being carried out to a limited extent by the Syrian military, now supplemented by the Russian air force.”

For more than three years Turkey has been advocating some sort of no-fly zone or safe haven just inside Syrian territory, but the administration has resisted.

In her speech Clinton also spoke of the need to arm the Kurds in the autonomous region of northern Iraq directly if the Iraqi government does not cooperate – something else the administration opposes.

She praised the Kurds for fighting “bravely” against ISIS, even as the Iraqi national army, she said, was struggling and would need “more work to get it up to fighting shape.”

Clinton spoke about the need to arm both Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis to tackle ISIS, calling for a second Sunni “awakening” against the jihadists. (The first “awakening” saw Sunni tribes in Anbar province mobilize in 2007 against al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’ precursor.)

“Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS,” Clinton said. “But if Baghdad won’t do that, the coalition should do so directly.”

Later she underlined the point: “One thing that I believe we haven’t done yet is make it clear to Baghdad that we are going to be arming Sunni tribes and Kurds if they don’t, because at some point, they have to be in the fight.”

The administration says support for the Kurds must go through the government in Baghdad.

In a recent interview, the outgoing special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, told CNN the U.S. does not want to arm the Kurds directly is because of the imperative of restoring Iraq’s territorial integrity and the sovereignty of its government.

Channeling the assistance through Baghdad, Allen said, “has both provided for the support to the Kurds but also has reinforced the nature of the sovereignty of the Iraqi government.”

Calls to give more armed support to the Kurds in Iraq have also come from some Republican presidential candidates.

“The Kurds have asked us to arm them for three years. We are not. I would,” Carly Fiorina said in the Fox Business Network debate on Nov. 10, echoing a point she made in the CNN debate last September.

“The Kurds deserve to be armed and I’ll arm them,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in the CNN debate.

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