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Hillary Clinton Says Allies Should 'Prioritize' Fighting ISIS Over Assad

Hillary Clinton speaks about her plan to fight the Islamic State militant group at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Seth Wenig
Hillary Clinton speaks about her plan to fight the Islamic State militant group at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Assad must go.

That's been the Obama administration hard line since the U.S. charged the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad, used chemical weapons against his own people.

But Hillary Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state, might not exactly agree.

"There is no alternative to a political transition that allows Syrians to end Assad's rule," Clinton said in her national-security address before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Thursday.

Seem plain enough, right? Not exactly.

Here's what she later said, per a transcript, in the question-and-answer session when pressed about what to do about ISIS (boldface is ours):

"Madam Secretary, if the only way you can put together a moderate Syrian force is by having the United States cajole, bribe, arm and train it, we are then looking for this force to defeat ISIS, then defeat Assad, then defeat al- Nusra, then defeat other Al Qaida affiliates, keep at bay the Shiite militias and Hezbollah, take control of Damascus and establish a pluralistic democracy in Syria.

"Isn't that kind of a tall order?"


CLINTON: "Well, certainly, described like that. And that's why I focused on ISIS. I mean, because I think it's — I think right now, we have one overriding goal. As I outlined, we need to crush their territorial domain, and we need to try to secure the entire border between Syria and Turkey.

"There is not going to be a successful military effort at this point to overturn Assad.That can only happen to the political process, so our efforts should be focused on ISIS, and yes, there are other terrorist groups, al-Nusra, whom you mentioned, is that particularly lethal fighter."

QUESTION: "So, no fight against Assad for now?"

CLINTON: "There — we have to prioritize, and we had an opportunity, perhaps, I won't say that it would've worked. But right now, we've got the Russians in protecting Assad, the Iranians and Hezbollah protecting Assad.

"We need to get people to turn against the common enemy of ISIS, and then we need to figure out how we put together a political outcome that provides enough autonomy, so that the separate communities within Syria will be able to re-create a Syrian state, even though it probably is unlikely it will be controlled by the Alawites from Damascus the same way it was before the civil war started."

In other words, first, prioritize fighting ISIS by getting Russia, the French, other American allies and Middle Eastern nations on board — and then turn to a political resolution as it relates to Assad.

That could be a much longer-term diplomatic proposition, but separates out first acting decisively against ISIS.

After the Paris attacks, President Obama argued against ground troops unless Americans were "prepared for a permanent occupation."

That would be true if there was no political solution. But that might not be the only option, especially if Assad is left in power.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.