During Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate, Mike Pence, the Republican, advocated an aggressive policy toward Syria, calling for a no-fly zone and strikes against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, even if it means confronting Russia, an Assad ally.
But Pence isn’t running for president, and the man atop the Republican ticket, Donald Trump, has voiced different ideas when it comes to Syria.
Trump has spoken positively of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has shown little desire to challenge him or intervene in Syria. In an MSNBC interview in May, Trump said the U.S. had “bigger problems than Assad” and that the Obama administration had already strayed too far into Syria.
“I would have stayed out of Syria and wouldn’t have fought so much for Assad, against Assad,” he said then.
That makes Pence’s statements more confusing than enlightening. Were they legitimate attempts to flesh out Trump’s foreign policy, which has been criticized as bare-bones, scattershot and, at times, alarming? Or did they merely represent Pence’s own positions and views and not those of the man who would be president?
Syria has been one of the most contentious issues in Washington since the anti-Assad rebellion began in early 2011. Congressional Republicans, and not a few Democrats, have criticized the administration’s policy as being too hands-off and not providing anti-Assad rebels with enough weapons and assistance to prevail against the Assad government.
Is it the policy of the ticket? I have no damn idea.
Danielle Pletka, American Enterprise Institute
At the same time, President Barack Obama has expressed pride in having kept American involvement in the conflict to a minimum, including the decision not to launch military strikes after chemical weapons killed hundreds of civilians outside Damascus in 2013.
All of which has particular relevance in the current presidential campaign because Syria, after Libya, is the foreign conflict most closely associated with Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Clinton joined then-CIA Director David Petraeus in urging Obama to arm Syrian rebels to help fight Assad – a proposal Obama rejected. Expectations are high that a new President Clinton would pursue a more interventionist path.
But would a President Trump?
Trump “has said about 10,000 contradictory things on Syria,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute research center and a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer. “What Pence said was a far more clearly formulated, clearly articulated set of policies than Trump. Is it the policy of the ticket? I have no damn idea.”
On Tuesday night, Pence argued for a more active U.S. role in countering a military onslaught that has created a humanitarian crisis in eastern Aleppo and in taking on Assad.
“I just have to tell you that the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength,” the Indiana governor said. “And if Russia chooses to be involved . . . in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo.”
Perry Cammack, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry in the Senate and at the State Department, said he’d expect Republicans to propose anti-Assad airstrikes or a no-fly zone, in contrast with Obama administration policy.
But in this case, Pence and Trump seem to diverge, leaving confusion about just what the public could expect from a President Trump.
“It’s not that surprising that Mike Pence, in an opposition party, would say that,” Cammack said. “But what’s surprising is to say that when paired with Donald Trump, who’s said the exact opposite.”
Cammack said Trump had made it clear that defeating the Islamic State extremist group was priority No. 1. But beyond that?
“From where I sit, it doesn’t seem to me like there’s a detailed plan or, frankly, that there’s been much planning at all for the Syrian civil war,” Cammack said.
Cammack said the situation in Syria was so bad that it was understandable that Americans would gravitate toward supporting humanitarian options.
The policies floated by both campaigns aren’t risk-free, he warned, and would require answers for high-stakes scenarios such as a Russian violation of a no-fly zone. Would the United States really shoot down Russian aircraft and risk a major escalation?
“It’s one thing to have a humanitarian zone as a talking point,” Cammack said. “It’s a more complicated thing to actually implement it and ensure that it’s meeting its objectives.”
Jon Alterman, senior vice president of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Trump and Clinton campaigns agreed on the importance of U.S. leadership in Syria, where “they see a 66-country coalition failing in the face of a three-country coalition (Syria, Russia and Iran) and are saying, ‘Something’s wrong.’ ”
But while Clinton has shown a deliberative approach to Syria, Alterman said, Trump has asked voters to trust in the mysterious “policy behind curtain No. 3.”
“The nature of the Trump campaign has been about how you feel at the end, not how you get there,” Alterman said. “I don’t think there’s a secret plan. I think there’s a set of instincts which have to do with being less predictable, bargaining hard and demonstrating force – but none of that gets you over shrewd and skeptical opponents who want to test you.”
Trump has said little about Syria’s civil war, but he has ruled out intervention against Assad.
He’s instead focused on the fight against the Islamic State, pledging that he’d “knock the hell out” out of its fighters in the region. He said in March that he’d put in up to 30,000 troops in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS.
He’s also called for cooperating with Russia and suggested it would be a “great thing” if the two countries worked together to fight the Islamic State – something he repeated during a campaign appearance Wednesday, even as he tried to distance himself from his previous praise of Putin.
“They say Donald Trump loves Putin. I don’t love; I don’t hate. We’ll see how it works,” Trump said at a rally in Henderson, Nevada, outside Las Vegas.
“I can say this,” he added, “If we get along, and Russia went out with us and knocked the hell out of ISIS, that’s OK with me, folks.”
Pence had been less complimentary toward Russia or its president Tuesday night, calling Putin a “small and bullying leader.”
Trump has endorsed the idea of a safe zone in Syria but suggested that it should be the responsibility of the Arab nations.
“What they should do is, the countries should all get together – including the Gulf states, who have nothing but money – they should all get together and they should take a big swath of land in Syria and they do a safe zone for people, where they could (go) to live, and then ultimately go back to their country, go back to where they came from,” Trump said.
Pence initially had criticized Trump’s call to temporarily ban all Muslim migration to the United States as “offensive and unconstitutional.” But on Tuesday, he said he and Trump were committed to suspending the Syrian refugee program “and immigration from areas of the world that have been compromised by terrorism.”