The Islamic State is making gains in and around Aleppo.

Photographer: Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Clinton Wants Obama to Confront Putin in Syria

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Hillary Clinton took a big step away from President Obama’s foreign policy at Tuesday night’s debate, challenging him to resist Russia's intervention in the Syrian war. She also recast her call for a Syrian no-fly zone, saying it is needed to fight President Vladimir Putin's aggression.

“We have to stand up to his bullying, and specifically in Syria, it is important,” Clinton said. “I think it's important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it's not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can't do that if we don't take more of a leadership position, which is what I'm advocating.”

As of last week, Clinton had been open to the idea of working with Russia. On Oct. 6, Clinton discussed her support for a no-fly zone, saying “the Russians would have to be part of it, or it wouldn’t work.” On Tuesday, after Putin's aggression, she said a no-fly zone would make sense "because I'm trying to figure out what leverage we have to get Russia to the table."

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

Three administration officials told me that since the Russian bombing began, the Islamic State has expanded its territory in and around Syria’s biggest city, Aleppo, taking about eight villages from other opposition groups. "We have seen ISIL make progress based on Russian airstrikes," Army Colonel Steve Warren told reporters in a video briefing from Baghdad on Monday. One senior administration official said Tuesday that Russian strikes against the Islamic State are scarce, and that the Syrian government is not striking Islamic State targets.

The Obama administration has not yet responded to Russia’s attacks on U.S.-supported rebels. Over the weekend, the U.S. dropped 50 tons of ammunition to groups fighting the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, but none to the groups that are being inundated by Syrian government forces and Russian air power near the cities of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama. However, there is some evidence in recent days American allies have been increasing arms shipments to the rebels targeted by Russia.

The principals committee of the National Security Council met Wednesday to consider U.S. options on Syria. But the White House has made it clear that Obama does not intend to confront Putin there.

“I think the president was fairly definitive in the news conference that he did 10 or 12 days ago in which he made clear that the conflict in Syria would not turn into a proxy war between the United States and Russia,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. “That is a firm commitment that the president has made, and that’s something that we will abide by.”

Earnest said then that the U.S. priority was to contain the Islamic State: “Countering Russia’s involvement in Syria doesn’t rate nearly as high on the scale.” He said the calls to confront Putin in Syria were just Republican rhetoric. Now Clinton has joined that camp.

One way of confronting Putin is to support the moderate opposition, including those rebels who have been supported by the CIA and are being targeted by Russian airstrikes. The Russian intervention and the war against the Islamic State are intertwined; to let Putin wage war unchecked is to risk undermining U.S. efforts against the Islamic State.

“The Obama administration's ambivalence about Russian intervention is mind boggling,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian American Task Force, an American organization that works with the State Department and several rebel groups. “Our mission is to counter ISIL, while Russia's mission is to counter the only ISIL resistance in Syria, which is the moderate opposition.”

Clinton’s Syria strategy is not fully articulated. She has not laid out plans to pressure Putin or end the conflict. But she has gone further than Obama has, by saying Russia’s actions harm U.S. interests.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net