Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton talks to reporters about the explosion in Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, New York, as she arrives at the Westchester County airport in White Plains, U.S., September 17, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a presidential debate that included claims one candidate would send the other to prison and assertions that the other candidate was unfit for office, it seemed unlikely that much could be gleaned regarding the future of American policy. However, around an hour into the debate, there was a series of revealing and important exchanges that have great importance for the Middle East.
Donald Trump said the Obama administration had been “laughed at all over the world.” He also asserted that President Barack Obama’s failure to attack Syria over chemical weapons led the regime to the assumption that it could do whatever it wanted. But Trump’s tough talk about confronting President Bashar Assad evaporated when he tried to explain his policy on Syria.
“She talks tough against Assad.... She talks in favor of the rebels; she doesn’t know who the rebels are,” Trump claimed about Clinton, joining the narrative that tends to side with Assad and the Russian in arguing that the US has been supporting jihadists by working with various rebel groups in Syria.
His criticism and suspicions that “we are arming people who end up being worse” than the regime they are fighting might have been coherent had he not then appeared to argue for siding with Assad against Islamic State.
Trump claimed that Russia, Assad and Iran were working against America. He then said: “I don’t like Assad, but Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS, Iran is killing ISIS.... I believe we have to get ISIS and worry about ISIS.”
When asked what he would do to help Aleppo from falling to the regime, which would cause hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee from the besieged city, Trump concluded that “Aleppo has basically fallen.”
This might be a brutally honest depiction of the slow, strangling destruction of Aleppo, which has gone on for years, but Trump’s assertions about the role of Assad and Russia in fighting ISIS were far off the mark. Assad’s regime has not been the principal force against ISIS; it is the Syrian Kurdish forces of the YPG who are responsible for rolling ISIS back, causing it to lose more than 30% of its territory since 2014.
Hillary Clinton was stronger in discussing the war in Iraq and Syria, displaying a deeper knowledge of the subject and the situation on the ground. Trump claimed that “ISIS leaders are leaving” Mosul and that the Iraqi city could be taken with a “sneak attack,” whereas Clinton hoped that the slow process of taking Mosul could be completed “by the time I am president.”
She showed familiarity with the complexity of a Mosul operation, arguing that “we will have pushed ISIS out of Iraq [and] there is a good chance we can take Mosul.
There is a lot of important planning going on; some is to signal to the Sunnis and Kurdish peshmerga.”
Clinton was also more articulate on Syria.
“I would not use American ground forces in Syria,” she said. “That would be a serious mistake. I don’t think they should hold territory, I don’t think that is a smart strategy. I do think enablers, trainers [and] special forces are in our interest.”
This mirrors the current US policy of working with the YPG in eastern Syria.
“I would target Baghdadi,” she added, referring to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, indicating that killing him has not been a central policy of the Obama administration.
Most importantly, she emphasized the central role of Kurdish forces in the region.
“I would consider arming the Kurds; they have been our best partners in Syria, as well as Iraq,” she said.
Clinton added that although some policy-makers were wary of giving the Kurds too much support, evidently worried about offending Turkey and other Syrian rebel groups, she felt it was essential to pave the way to take ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.
As opposed to Trump’s bluster and contradictory policies, Clinton showed that she had studied the situation in Syria carefully.
Whether she has a vision for the future of Syria and Iraq, or for the refugee crises, will remain to be seen in the next debate.
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