The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump featured discussion of some timely and crucial national security issues—the threat posed by ISIS and the recent deluge of cyberattacks against U.S. institutions. One foreign policy topic, however, was barely mentioned by either candidate: the Syrian civil war.
Determining who the main U.S. partners should be in tackling the Syrian problem will be a major question for the next president. Yet, during the debate there was no mention of what policy either candidate would adopt to resolve the lingering civil war. There was no illumination of their potential policies regarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a diplomatic solution with Russia, or the massive humanitarian disaster being created by the Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces. The only allusion to the Syrian conflict came when Secretary Clinton suggested that, in order to fight ISIS, she would “eventually support our Arab and Kurdish partners to be able to actually take out ISIS in Raqqa,” essentially a continuation of the current policies that are sure to anger Turkey even further.
Clinton and Trump did not touch on their potential policies regarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a diplomatic solution with Russia, or the massive humanitarian disaster.
The ignoring of Syria during the debate is particularly puzzling both because the conflict created the conditions for ISIS’ rise to power in its current manifestation and because of the recent tumultuous developments there that have been dominating the news cycle.
Two weeks ago, a ceasefire negotiated by the United States and Russia went into effect. Five days later, a U.S. airstrike targeting ISIS hit Syrian troops instead. Just days after that, a humanitarian aid convoy heading for the besieged city of Aleppo was destroyed in an airstrike that U.S. officials ascribed to Russia. Shortly thereafter, the ceasefire unraveled and the Syrian regime commenced its most brutal assault yet on Aleppo.
Amid all of this, an ongoing dispute between the United States and Turkey intensified. On September 16, Turkish-backed elements of the Free Syrian Army chased U.S. special forces, sent to assist them, out of a Syrian town. A week later, reports suggested the Obama administration is considering arming Syrian Kurdish rebel groups directly, even as Turkey is offering that it can take on the job of routing ISIS from its stronghold in Raqqa.
Perhaps the candidates’ silence is a tacit admission that there is little political benefit to be gained from debating policy complexities such as choosing between the Turks and the Kurds.
These twists demonstrate perhaps the central issue confronting the United States in dealing with Syria—uncertainty about who to work with and whom to trust. The American public, and both candidates, have made it very clear that there is little appetite for committing the U.S. military—”boots on the ground”—to stop this conflict or even defeat ISIS directly. That leaves the United States searching for partners within Syria and among the international community. But America has had little success coming to an agreement on Syria policy with our traditional allies such as Turkey. And attempts to forge a consensus with Russia fail time and time again.
Perhaps the presidential candidates’ silence on these topics is a reflection of the fact that, despite the causal connection between the two, it is ISIS, not the Syrian conflict that the American public identifies as a graver threat to U.S. national security. Perhaps there is little political benefit to be gained from debating policy complexities such as choosing between the Turks and the Kurds. Or perhaps it is a tacit admission that neither candidate plans to expend time and energy on trying to extinguish the Syrian civil war.
There are certainly some advantages to be derived from next administration distancing itself from President Obama’s public commitment to Assad’s ouster. It lowers the risk of a military entanglement of which the nation is wary. And it frees up diplomatic space and leverage to pursue other priorities. For example, it has been reported that the White House has been reluctant to name Russia as the perpetrator of recent cyberattacks targeting the election and electoral system or take any action in response, for fear of upsetting negotiations about Syria. Given the attention both candidates gave to cybersecurity in the debate, perhaps they think this approach misprioritizes Syria over cyber in U.S. dealings with Russia.
Ceding a leadership role to Russia in the Middle East could further incentivize erstwhile U.S. allies, like Turkey, to turn eastward.
Even if that were the case, however, Syria cannot be so easily ignored. As even this one example demonstrates, the Syrian conflict is linked even to issues that seem unrelated. Should the next president decide to push Russia on its nefarious activities in cyberspace, Moscow could retaliate by leaving ISIS alone, as Assad has done, or using the Russian military presence in the country to actually complicate U.S.-led attempts to destroy the group. Also, ceding a leadership role to Russia in the Middle East could further incentivize erstwhile U.S. allies, like Turkey, to turn eastward.
Should the next president want to pressure Iran to become a more responsible regional actor or even perhaps to renegotiate the nuclear deal, it would become a more difficult task if Iran is allowed to operate in Syria unimpeded. Should the next president seek to convince European nations that they need to increase their defense spending to support NATO, they might find that those countries are devoting all their resources to dealing with the population flows caused by the Syrian conflict, whether by caring for refugees themselves, effectively paying off Turkey to keep the refugees from reaching Europe, or both.
Two more presidential debates remain. Both candidates should use them as opportunities to rectify one of the biggest oversights of the first debate—the lack of any discussion of the Syrian civil war not just as a humanitarian disaster but as a force that is driving extremism in the Middle East, complicating U.S. partnerships around the world, and affecting a myriad of other strategic interests.