From “Carpet bombing” to “beautiful safe zones”- the presidential candidates on Syria

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Aleppo, Syria

Syria and the fight against ISIS is the dominating foreign policy topic in the current U.S. presidential debates. The discourse on no-fly zones and efforts to topple Bashar al-Assad show that divisions run deep and beyond party lines. 

The suspension of the peace talks on Syria under mediation of UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura shows that an end of the conflict seems distant, and a new U.S. administration after 2016 will most likely have to develop and implement its own Syria-strategy. Not surprisingly, proposals to resolve the conflict are a popular topic in the current Republican and Democratic debates. In the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino in December, the dominating aspect of the discourse is the fight against ISIS. Almost all of President Obama’s potential successors agree that ISIS needs to be defeated, and that this must be done in cooperation with allies in the region. However, the candidates have deeply contrasting positions on the details of a Syria strategy. What are the candidates’ views on imposing no-fly zones, deploying U.S. ground forces to Syria, arming opposition forces, and cooperating with Iran and Russia to resolve the conflict? Interestingly, the positions are not only divided between Republicans and Democrats, but also between candidates within each party.

Memories of the hapless interventions in Iraq, Libya, and other places have led to distaste among most U.S. citizens to launch another large-scale intervention in the region. Clear interventionists have also become rare among leading U.S. politicians, with few exceptions like senators John McCain and (former Republican candidate) Lindsey Graham, who argued in favor of sending 20,000 American troops to Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, among the original presidential candidates, only the outlier Rand Paul, who represents the libertarian wing within the Republicans and has recently dropped out of the race, strictly opposed an intervention to topple Bashar al-Assad. While none of the remaining candidates rule out more pro-active involvement in Syria, the measures they propose differ significantly from each other.

No-fly zones: stopping refugee flows or starting a deeper US entanglement in Syria?

The divisions are reflected in the discussions on no-fly zones, i.e. the idea to impose protected areas in Northern Syria that aircraft of the warring parties are not allowed to enter. Advocates of no fly zones argue that such zones can stop al-Assad from killing civilians and opposition groups and create a space in which internally displaced persons can remain until the end of the war instead of fleeing to Europe. It is not unlikely that the discussions on no-fly zones will intensify with the recent advance of government forces on Aleppo. Opponents of the no-fly zones argue that in order to ensure the safe zones, the US and its allies would have to ultimately enter the war against the Syrian government coalition, which might also involve shooting down Russian combat planes. Opponents also assume that safe zones might require the deployment of ground forces to prevent massacres. So far, the Obama administration has not pursued the idea of enforcing no-fly zones and has also rejected calls for more US soldiers on the ground (except for special troops), a position that is supported by many American citizens.

Among the presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders, the self-declared democratic socialist, is the perhaps strongest opponent of no-fly zones. Sanders warns that by deploying US forces to Syria (except for special forces “when appropriate”), the US risks getting incrementally sucked into “never- ending, perpetual warfare within the quagmire of Syria and Iraq.” In contrast, Hillary Clinton, the other remaining Democratic candidate, proposes no-fly zones and the deployment of special operations forces – although in limited numbers – that could help opposition forces to create safe areas. Clinton thus distances herself from the current approach of the Obama administration. Similarly, the Republican candidate Marco Rubio, who performed surprisingly well in the Iowa caucus and has become the new hope of the Republican Party elites, advocates no-fly zones and does not rule out US ground forces. Judging by his argument that the military defeat of ISIS “will take overwhelming U.S. force”, a substantial US intervention in Syria is not unlikely under a potential administration led by Marco Rubio.

Rubio’s contester Ted Cruz, who enjoys the support of many evangelical Christian voters and became the strongest Republican candidate in the Iowa caucus, controversially suggests carpet bombing parts of Syria to completely destroy ISIS. Lastly, Republican candidates Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, and real-estate mogul Donald Trump advocate no-fly zones and limited numbers of ground forces – the latter with the demand that “a big, beautiful safe zone” should primarily be funded by rich Gulf states.

Strengthening the opposition forces: what can go wrong?

There are also clear disagreements on arming opposition groups in Syria, an approach that the Obama administration has pursued in the past years. Bernie Sanders is the most outspoken opponent of further arming of the opposition, arguing that “in the incredible quagmire of Syria, where it's hard to know who's fighting who and if you give arms to this guy, it may end up in ISIS' hand the next day.” Similarly, his Republican adversary Donald Trump warned that some of the rebels that the US backs could indeed be ISIS affiliates and worse than Assad. Trump’s Republican contester Ted Cruz opposes supporting the Syrian rebel groups with weapons, and advises that the US should “stop engaging in the fiction of trying to find moderate rebels”, while at the same time criticizing the Obama administration for failing to arm the Kurds (that were not invited to participate in the Geneva peace talks). In contrast to these skeptical voices, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio advocate training and equipping moderate opposition forces and Kurdish groups.

Defeating ISIS: with or without Assad?

Finally, the candidates are deeply divided over the question of how to deal with the Assad regime.  President Obama has reiterated that Bashar al-Assad must be removed from office, a topic that is among the main points of friction with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Secretary of State John Kerry rejects the idea that the US is seeking regime change in Syria. Indeed, the current peace talks were held with Assad still in power. Although no longer being part of the administration Hillary Clinton acknowledges that toppling Assad is not a top priority for US foreign policy. This has infuriated some Republican candidates. Marco Rubio warns that the Obama administration will eventually come to terms with the existing regime and thus allow Iran to gain dominance in the region. He is the most outspoken proponent of removing Assad with force. Other Republican candidates like Chris Christie also believe that ISIS will never be defeated and Syria never stabilized with al-Assad remaining in power.

In stark contrast, Rubio’s Republican contender Ted Cruz believes that ISIS will gain more power and occupy more space in Syria once Assad is toppled, an argument that was shared by libertarian Rand Paul. Cruz had also opposed President Obama’s earlier plans in 2013 to strike Syrian government forces for using chemical weapons. Donald Trump, who has no interest in “nation-building” abroad, goes further in this direction by suggesting that the presence of Russia in Syria, a close ally of Bashir al-Assad, could be helpful in fighting ISIS. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders proposes a grand coalition that also includes Russia and Iran to destroy ISIS as the most urgent task. In a second step, again in cooperation with Iran and Russia, Sanders suggests to force al-Assad to step down.

Presidential nominees: middle course between pro-active engagement and restraint in Syria?

As the discussions on a Syria policy illustrate, the Democratic and Republican candidates propose a variety of measures for a new strategy. The dividing lines are not clear-cut between the two parties. In the end, the leading candidates of both parties can be roughly categorized into those that advocate a more interventionist approach (Rubio, Cruz, Clinton) and those who promote a more reticent approach (Sanders, and partly Trump). Although a new large-scale intervention in a Middle Eastern country is an unpopular idea in the US, a reticent approach can also easily backfire on the future president, for example in case there is an attack on the US that is linked to ISIS. For this reason, it is not unlikely that the presidential nominees from both parties will in the end advocate a middle course between a more pro-active approach and restraint in Syria.

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