Monday, August 1, 2016

West of Eden: Is Clinton pulling back?

Entrance to the Cheik et Bakr quarter, Aleppo. Postcard, ca. 1910, via Levantine Heritage.
A somewhat weird story in Britain's Independent aims to bring us up to date on Clinton's Syria policy, with the suggestion that it's almost entirely up in the air:
Hillary Clinton plans to order a full review of the United States’ strategy in Syria as one of her first priorities if elected President.
One of her foreign policy advisers, Jeremy Bash, said she would seek to end Bashar al-Assad’s “murderous” regime despite waning political will to oust the autocratic Syrian President.
He said dealing with Syria would be Ms Clinton’s “first key task” if elected and she would work to get President Assad “out of there”.
While she holds to the theoretical aim of getting rid of Assad, that is, or rather "working" to get rid of him, she seems to have dropped the specifics, such as they were (efforts to pursue the Obama policy a little more energetically, plus that "limited no-fly zone" for the protection of civilians), or put them off pending some large-scale rethink to start after the election. And at the same time the international situation becomes less and less favorable to the project as the "political will" diminishes among the possible coalition partners like Britain and Germany.

And then there is the ongoing Aleppo campaign, in which the US and Russia are finally collaborating to hit the Qa'eda-linked Nusra Front troops holding the eastern part of the city under brutal Salafi rule, and possibly to help the hundreds of thousands of civilians stuck in the sieges there and in Manbij to escape. This plays toward Obama's preferred scenario, in which Syrian constituencies other than the ISIS and Qa'eda groups come together to negotiate a new government under the patronage of the US and Russia, and Assad's fate is a secondary issue.

Syria seems to be kind of disappearing from the campaign; Clinton didn't mention it during her acceptance speech in Philadelphia, and the Democratic platform (whether under the influence of Sanders or the president) leaves her old position out:
The Democrats pledge to lead the anti-Islamic State coalition while working toward a political settlement to end the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.   The Democratic platform doesn’t incorporate policy initiatives that Clinton has advocated as a candidate, including the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria and a ramp-up of the bombing campaign. 

Last November, when the prospects for Russia-US cooperation on Syria seemed really hopeful, Fareed Zakaria began suspecting that Clinton's commitment to that no-fly zone might not be totally sincere:
ZAKARIA: When you were secretary of state, you tended to agree a great deal with the then-secretary of defense, Bob Gates. Gates was opposed to a no-fly zone in Syria, thought it was an act of war that was risky and dangerous. This seems to me the major difference right now between what Obama’s administration is doing and what you are proposing. Do you not—why do you disagree with Bob Gates on this? 
Her answer wasn't exactly an answer:
CLINTON: Well, I believe that the no-fly zone is merited and can be implemented, again, in a coalition, not an American-only no-fly zone.
I fully respect Bob and his knowledge about the difficulties of implementing a no-fly zone, but if you look at where we are right now we have to try to clear the air of the bombing attacks...
She explained her disagreement by refusing to discuss what Gates said, unless she thought maybe if a coalition does it it's legal. I thought, at the time, that she was supporting it as a matter of staking a claim to a more aggressively humanitarian position than the president, that is for political reasons, in line with how the political situation looked to her back then, and in line with the possibility that it might be a completely moot point by January 2017 so that she'd never have to actually deal with the thing:
It's possible to hope that by the time Clinton becomes president, these issues she's fudging on will look very different.
Because it seemed possible (at least to me) that President Obama's policy was going to work, and the killing was going to stop, and the Assad regime would submit to a negotiated settlement, thanks to Russia-US cooperation in the region, and hahahaha, yes, I know.

Now I'm starting to think I might have been right after all. The latest news from Syria is the most hopeful it's been since back then, and that "full review" in January sounds like a roundabout way of allowing those risky and dangerous plans to disappear altogether without appearing to flipflop.

Obviously she's not talking to us hippies, any more than Obama does, but to the idiots (hi, Tom Friedman, and thanks, no snark) who shape the Received Opinion, the ones who thought the aggressive anti-Assad posture was a good idea. She doesn't have to convince us that it isn't, she has to convince them. Or let it play out in the next months until it goes away. Anyway, I'm back in my hopeful phase.

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