WASHINGTON — Whoever occupies the White House next, he or she will inherit one of the most complex and brutal crises in the world: the war in Syria.
With Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies Russia and Iran dug in, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has articulated a comprehensive or realistic proposal that would address the multiple strands of the conflict.
The civil war, complicated by the occupation of key areas by the Islamic State group and a number of other extremist groups, has already further unsteadied the already unstable Middle East and spread outward, along with millions of refugees, around the globe.
Clinton pointed out during Sunday’s debate that she, as America’s chief diplomat, had pushed for a more robust response in Syria.
“I, when I was secretary of state, advocated, and I advocate today, a no-fly zone and safe zone,” she said at the debate. “We need some leverage with the Russians, because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution unless there is some leverage over them.”
But no-fly and safe zones need to be enforced — an issue that vexed the Pentagon when they were first proposed four years ago because of the resources required. Since Clinton became a candidate, Russia’s military intervention one year ago has only exacerbated that problem. Russia has introduced advanced air defense systems to Syria, which would make enforcement of a no-fly zone far more dangerous for American personnel and a potential cause for a direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.
Clinton said she would also target IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the same way that President Barack Obama went after Osama bin Laden.
And, she said she is in favor of continuing the Obama administration practice of funneling weapons to Iraq’s Kurdish armed forces, the Peshmerga, and hinted that she would consider extending that support to Kurd fighters in Syria, where small numbers of U.S. special forces are on the ground. But she said she would not use U.S. ground troops in Syria, as they would become an occupying force.
Trump has said the only American interest in Syria is defeating the Islamic State group and suggested he might leave Syria’s fate to Russia and Iran. He lashed out at Clinton for the proposal even as he appeared to exaggerate what she would consider.
“She wants to fight for rebels,” he said. “There’s only one problem: You don’t even know who the rebels are. So what’s the purpose?”
In adopting this argument, Trump positioned himself with Russia, which has repeatedly accused the U.S. of tacitly supporting the Islamic State militants and Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate by its support of what were once moderate rebel groups interested only in a democratic election to replace Assad. Russia says the moderate rebel forces that the U.S. and its allies are supporting are so intermingled with IS and al-Qaida as to be indistinguishable.
“I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said at Sunday’s debate, using another acronym for the Islamic State group. “Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy.” He continued: “Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia and it’s Iran.”
Trump said he disagreed with his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who said last week that he would support U.S. military action against Syrian targets to protect civilians in the besieged city of Aleppo. But he did not offer a specific policy prescription for Syria short of setting up safe zones, to be paid for by Arab nations, for Syrian civilians who have fled the fighting.
And Trump accused Obama and Clinton, as secretary of state, of having abandoned the country by not following through on a threat to bomb Syria if Assad used chemical weapons.
Clinton incorrectly said she had already left the administration when Obama, and then she herself, warned Assad of a “red line” that would be crossed if chemical weapons were used. But she was no longer in office when Assad crossed that line, and Obama decided not to follow through. It fell to her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, to negotiate the step-down, which involved a deal with Russia to press Assad to get rid of his remaining declared chemical weapons stock. Obama, who maintains that decision was the right one, has been widely criticized for backing down by many who believe it undercut U.S. credibility.