Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday appeared to back the imposition of civilian refuge zones inside Syria, as the White House considers whether to enforce havens for rebel fighters or refugees.

The former secretary of state and potential presidential candidate also told a Georgetown University audience that the conflict in Syria has ceased to be a fight only to oust President Bashar al-Assad and is now also a scramble for territory among multiple groups and factions.

“Part of what we have to do in continuing to try to combat the depredations and criminal conduct of a group like ISIS, and continue to put pressure on Assad, is probably first and foremost a protective humanitarian approach,” Clinton said, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State terrorist group.

That suggests wider U.S. military involvement to establish safe areas — variously called humanitarian buffers or corridors — inside Syria, or an even more comprehensive “no-fly zone.” Clinton did not elaborate on which of those options she might prefer.

A spokesman for Clinton did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on whether she would support the kind of buffer zones along the Turkish border that are under review.

The fight against the Islamic State has become the chief foreign policy challenge for President Obama and one he is likely to hand off to his successor.

If she runs for the White House in 2016, Clinton is expected to play up her experience handling national security crises. Her credentials as a relative hawk within the Democratic Party could be considered an asset in a general election contest with a Republican.

Turkey has long sought a safe zone across its long southern border with Syria, partly in hopes that some of the Syrian refugees who have crossed into Turkey could return to their country. A buffer created by the United States would primarily serve a military purpose, but the area also would surely be considered an invitation to refugees inside and outside of Syria.

“There is a lot of discussion going on,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told reporters Wednesday in Brussels. “But it is premature to suggest at this moment of time that we are close to making a decision or moving forward with any form of a safe zone or a buffer zone.”

“We are continuing our discussions with our Turkish allies in order to have conversations about how we best bolster security in the region and deal with the problem of Syria,” Kerry said.

Any safe zone would be established without the consent of Assad and probably would bring American warplanes into more direct confrontation with Syrian aircraft.

Refugee advocates for years have sought humanitarian refuges, and a debate about whether such zones could be secured by outside air power took place during Clinton’s time as the top U.S. diplomat. Since leaving office in 2013, Clinton has gone public about being on the losing side of an administration debate over whether the United States should arm the rebels and become more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict.

The war is well into its fourth year, with no end in sight. It was not clear from Clinton’s comments Wednesday that she would back a major military expansion in Syria, which the Pentagon has long warned would be required to establish an effective no-fly zone and protect civilians or rebel fighters from Assad’s warplanes.

Obama chose to launch airstrikes and greatly expand U.S. support for the rebels after Clinton left office. The war had changed by then to become one in which the Islamic State had seized huge amounts of territory and beheaded captured Americans and Britons.

“Syria is now a multi-sided conflict,” Clinton said during a discussion of women in conflicts and peacemaking. She cited the Assad government, “propped up by Iran,” and Hezbollah and the proliferation of outside extremist groups such as Islamic State as among the players. Assad is also still getting money and weapons from his old patron Russia, she charged.

“It’s not only now a fight against Assad, it is a fight to seize and hold territory and to establish their own governance, if you will,” Clinton said.

A United Nations effort to inaugurate peace talks between Assad’s government and rebel-backed political opponents fell apart almost as soon as it began last year. U.S. officials privately acknowledge that the Syrian leader is not leaving soon and that the U.S.-led air war actually helps him remain in power.

The buffer zone along the Syria-Turkish border that is under review would open a new front against the Islamic State in Syria. It would be part of the effort to push back militants along the western part of Syria’s border with Turkey and create a relatively safe zone for U.S.-backed Syrian rebel forces to move.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.