One candidate in Sunday’s US presidential debate condemned the “ambitions and aggressiveness of Russia’’ in the Middle East; advocated arming a proxy force to fight Islamic State; and raised the possibility of direct US military action in Syria. The other candidate asserted that it is Russia, Syria and Iran that are “killing ISIS’’; warned against arming Syrian rebels and suggested they may be worse than the Assad government; and declared himself firmly opposed to the threat of US military action against Russia’s Mideast aims which was raised by his own running mate.
That the former candidate happens to be ostensible liberal Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and the latter the supposedly conservative Republican contender Donald Trump, is one of the most strikingly topsy-turvy aspects of this decidedly unorthodox presidential race.
This week’s debate certainly won’t be remembered for either Clinton’s or Trump’s views on the Middle East, or any of the other scant issue-orientated exchanges between them; not with Trump threatening to jail Clinton if he wins the election, or seeding the audience with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual improprieties, in order to deflect the controversy over his own “locker-room talk’’ comments.
Nonetheless, their exchange of views over Syria – the only segment of the debate to deal with foreign policy issues – did provide a substantive look at how the candidates perceive the most pressing global issue of the day, and one of vital importance to Israel.
What’s more, those outlooks were almost diametrically opposed, while also raising some uncomfortable questions about how the next US president, be it Clinton or Trump, intends to deal with the conflict raging just north of this country’s borders.
That the subject was addressed in any depth at all is due only to the persistence of moderator Martha Raddatz, ABC News’ senior foreign affairs correspondent, who insisted the candidates give a direct answer to her question: “If you were president, what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo?” Clinton, while firmly rejecting the use of US ground forces in Syria, did praise the Obama administration’s limited use of US special forces acting as “enablers and trainers,” as is now being done in Iraq.
Pressed by Raddatz on what she would do differently from Obama, the Democratic nominee proposed “arming the Kurds,” whom she called “our best partners in Syria.” She also backed the creation of “a no-fly zone and safe zones” to shield Syrians against pro-Assad forces, adding that “we need some leverage with the Russians” to force them to the negotiating table.
This is not the first time Clinton has made these suggestions; she proposed them in greater detail a year ago in a speech to the US Council on Foreign Relations. But the Democratic nominee has steered clear of them during the campaign until now, after being outflanked on her left during the primaries against dovish challenger Bernie Sanders, whose supporters still find it hard to forgive her senate vote in favor of the Iraq invasion.
That she was willing to speak out in favor of a more interventionist approach in Syria is perhaps a sign of Clinton’s confidence that those Sanders supporters now have little choice but to support her against Trump.
Yet according to a former top Israeli military official, when it comes to the creation of a US-backed no-fly zone in Syria, this is far easier said than done. The ex-official points out that this task has been made more difficult in recent weeks by Russia’s delivery to Syria of its S-400 surface-to-air missile system. While the US has the capability to counter the S-400, he says, it means utilizing military assets in the Syrian theater far beyond what the Pentagon has thus far contemplated.
What’s more, he adds, it also means the US must demonstrate a willingness to shoot down Russian aircraft that violate such a no-fly zone, if the Kremlin is to take its creation as anything more than just a bluff.
Such a destabilizing move is worth the risks only if it is part of a broader, well-articulated strategy for the future political status of Syria, yet neither Obama nor Clinton have been willing to fully lay out their vision of a Syrian endgame, which at any rate may now well be beyond their capability to deliver.
As for Trump, he seemingly rejected Clinton’s proposal to arm the Kurds, or any of the forces fighting the Assad regime, saying: “She talks in favor of the rebels. She doesn’t even know who the rebels are. You know, every time we take rebels... they end being worse than the people [sic].”
Trump went even further than rejecting aid for the rebels, claiming that the pro-Assad coalition of Syrian regime, Russian and Iranian forces, are now leading the fight against Islamic State: “I don’t like ISIS, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS.”
This is simply false, says the former Israeli military official, noting that pro-Assad forces are for the most part operating far from any Islamic State-held territory, and instead are directing their fire primarily at other rebel forces whose only goal is toppling the Assad regime.
He adds that any US administration prepared to give Iran a free hand in Syria on the basis that it is an ally in the fight against Islamic State would pose a problem for Israel.
Of course, given the record of how faithfully promises and statements made during a campaign are subsequently kept to by political candidates, the positions expressed on Syria by Clinton and Trump this week may turn out to be of little consequence.
Nor is it at all clear in this election season just how many Americans beyond Martha Raddatz really care about the slaughter taking place today in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.
Yet the battle of Syria has already altered the geopolitics of the Middle East and, via its concurrent refugee crisis, has profoundly impacted on Europe as well. Its potential as a global superpower conflagration point also increases with each day of deepening Russian military involvement.
Thus, in future decades, Sunday’s presidential debate may be recalled less for the details of its “locker-room talk” and instead looked back on in disbelief and despair that this was the focus of the discussion, while Syria burned.
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