Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event on Oct. 22 in Pittsburgh. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)
Global Opinions

Throughout the campaign, Hillary Clinton has pledged to ramp up U.S. action not only to fight the Islamic State, but also to end the Syrian civil war. If she does what she’s promising, the risky effort could engulf the first year of her presidency and test the limits of the United States’ reduced influence in the region. The question is whether she will follow through.

Inside the Clinton campaign, the battle over Clinton’s post-election Syria policy has already begun. Clinton’s Middle East advisers are split between those who believe the United States has the ability and responsibility to do more in Syria and those who are skeptical of further U.S. intervention. Advisers are debating policy options both in private and in public. Clinton’s actual Syria policy, if she is elected, is still to be determined.

Listening to Clinton’s own pledges to create safe zones inside Syria, increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and boost support to the armed opposition, one might conclude that those around her who advocate for a more aggressive approach are set to win the day. But after the election, Clinton will be forced to confront the risks and challenges of those policies.

Clinton acknowledged in 2013 remarks released by WikiLeaks that establishing a no-fly zone and taking down Syrian air defenses means “you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians.” The U.S. military remains wary of such an intervention. The moderate opposition she hopes to bolster may have lost Aleppo by the time she takes office. And by then the battle against the Islamic State in Raqqa may be raging, demanding the bulk of U.S. attention.

“She’s on the hook to deliver. If she has to back down now, what explanation can she use?” said Aaron David Miller, vice president at the Wilson Center. “But she’s going to be extremely careful in that first 100 days about any new policy initiative that’s going to cause her a lot of trouble.”

Don’t expect any big Syria policy shifts in the first few weeks of a Clinton administration, advisers cautioned me. Clinton would want to do her own full intelligence and military assessments with her new team. Plus, Clinton would need to prioritize the domestic agenda she ran on.

“We have no idea what things will look like on Jan. 21,” one Clinton foreign policy adviser told me. “What will be before her are a set of options that are being developed now. The real hard part for an incoming team is that the tide is going in the wrong direction in Syria.”

The more interventionist side of the Clinton team includes top foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan and experts at the Center for American Progress, the think tank founded by her campaign chairman, John Podesta, which last week released a report calling for the use of American air power to protect civilians in Syria.

Opposing them are many former officials from President Obama’s own White House staff, who for years, with Obama’s support, successfully steered U.S. policy away from the riskier options in Syria. They prioritize the fight against terrorism and reject any escalation against Assad or Russia.

Among them, former National Security Council officials Steven Simon (who secretly met with Assad last year), Derek Chollet and Phillip Gordon have argued publicly that further U.S. intervention will not succeed in bringing the Assad regime to the table and could provoke outright conflict with Russia.

Throughout the Syrian crisis, Clinton has consistently supported more action and has been willing to shoulder more risk than Obama. She insists that terrorism can only be defeated when the Syrian civil war is solved, and she believes that the United States must exert more leverage to bring about a political solution.

But those inside Clinton world who insist that increased U.S. intervention in Syria would do more harm than good are not giving up. They believe that by the time Clinton would take office, the prospects of a successful U.S. action would be even dimmer than they are now.

The Syria problem is particularly vexing because it intersects with other major foreign policy crises that Clinton would need to confront in her first year: the terrorism threat, the refugee crisis, the growing conflict with Russia and the tenuous detente with Iran, to name a few.

If Clinton truly believes that the path to a more stable Middle East depends on solving Syria, her choice is clear. She must accept the security and political risks that come with committing more American resources to ending the slaughter and confronting the regime and its partners.

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