The understandable focus in Sunday night’s presidential debate on Donald Trump’s sexual-assault remarks from 2005 and his counteraccusations against Hillary Clinton’s husband, as well as Trump’s headline-grabbing promise that as president he would investigate, prosecute and jail Clinton, diverted attention from the most significant difference between the two candidates on foreign policy.
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The irony of their divergent opinions on the bloody war in Syria is that while Trump sought to portray the Obama administration’s handling of world affairs (and Clinton’s role as its first secretary of state) as an ongoing disaster, in actual policy terms Trump was much closer on Syria to Barack Obama than Clinton now appears to be.
Over the last three years, since John Kerry took over for Clinton at the State Department, the Obama administration has made two major calls on Syria. The first has been to refrain almost completely from any military intervention in the five-and-a-half-year war between the Assad regime and a wide range of rebel groups that has displaced millions and killed around 300,000 Syrians.
The second has been to focus primarily on fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, effectively — if not directly — allying itself with the Assad regime and its main backers, Russia and Iran.
Though the United States and Russia have engaged over the last few weeks in a war of words over Syria, this policy has not changed in any significant way and the administration, despite internal disagreement, has repeatedly emphasized that it has no plans to attack the regime or confront the Russians with anything but words.
Trump may have rhetorically been much more positive toward the Kremlin in Sunday night’s second debate, but his policy recommendations on Syria and the Islamic State were remarkably similar to the ones currently being pursued by the Obama administration.
“I don’t like Assad at all,” said Trump. “But Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS. Assad, Iran and Russia are all killing ISIS.” The Republican candidate was seeking to portray the Obama administration as weaker against the Islamic State than Assad and his allies.
However, the overwhelming majority of airstrikes against ISIS targets have been carried out by the U.S.-led coalition, while at least 80 percent of Russia’s strikes have actually been against other rebel groups — those threatening the Assad regime more directly. And the regime has even cooperated with the Islamic State in various ways. In essence, Trump is advocating a doubling-down on the Obama administration’s policy of focusing primarily on ISIS.
Next, he made clear that he was against any aid to the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. Clinton "talks in favor of the rebels” he said. “She doesn’t even know who they are. Every time we take rebels, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else, we’re arming people, and you know what happens? They end up being worse than the people.”
Trump needed to be so clear on this point that he even distanced himself from his running mate Mike Pence, who last week in the vice-presidential debate came out in support of using military force against the regime to defend civilians being killed in Aleppo.
“He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree,” Trump responded curtly when asked about the discrepancy between them. Anyway, he said, Aleppo had “basically” fallen, which came as news to the quarter of a million Syrians still holding out against Russian and regime bombardments.
Clinton, however, didn’t shy away from making the point that her former colleagues in the Obama administration have been reluctant to make openly. “Russia hasn’t paid any attention to ISIS,” she said. “They are interested in keeping Assad in power.”
In what could easily be seen as a rebuke to Obama and Kerry’s never-ending pursuit of a cease-fire, brokered with Russia through diplomacy, Clinton stated categorically that the Russians are “not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution unless there is some leverage over them.”
To create that leverage and to protect civilian lives, Clinton recommended the exact opposite of the Obama policy: “The situation in Syria is catastrophic,” she said. “I advocate today a no-fly zone and safe zones."
A no-fly zone is very different from Kerry’s demand that Syria and Russia “ground” their aircraft voluntarily as part of a cease-fire agreement. A no-fly zone means that the United States and its allies carry out combat air patrols, ensuring that Russian and Syrian aircraft don't operate over areas like Aleppo. If necessary, it means shooting them down and attacking anti-aircraft batteries threatening the coalition’s planes. “I want to emphasize that what is at stake here is the aggressiveness and ambition of Russia," Clinton said.
The only limitation Clinton mentioned was that “I would not use American ground forces in Syria.” But she made clear that she would not hesitate to attack regime targets — once again, the opposite of the stance of the administration in which she used to serve.
For all the praise Clinton has been lavishing on Obama and his record, and for all her opponent’s vitriolic criticism, on Syria she's blatantly challenging his legacy, while Trump is the continuity candidate to Obama.