Twitter was abuzz last night about Donald Trump’s off-handed disagreement with his running mate Mike Pence on the issue of Syria. How could two people on the same presidential ticket not only have such stark differences over one of the most consequential foreign policy questions that the United States is facing, but also seem to have never even talked about it? Some interpreted Trump’s remark as a shot against Pence, who’s been a ghost on the campaign trail over the last four days.
But lets get away from the superficial for a brief moment and focus on substance. As was mentioned during the debate last night, Trump and Hillary Clinton have diametrically opposite views about how to the stop the carnage in Syria. Clinton has consistently called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria to forbid Syrian and Russian aircraft in those areas. It’s a noble idea with noble intentions: stopping the wholesale slaughter of civilians and providing some a welcoming refuge for some 6 million internally displaced Syrians.
Trump has taken a more hands-off approach, partly due to his legitimate concern that whoever replaces Bashar al-Assad could be even worse than the butcher himself. Interestingly enough, Trump is more in line with President Obama on Syria than Secretary Clinton is — concentrate military power against ISIL instead of trying once again for regime change.
Both Trump and Clinton, however, are viewing the Syria problem through rose-colored glasses. And the policies that both candidates have said they would pursue once in office are either dangerous or impossible to implement.
Trump’s advocacy for a safe zone within Syria paid for and protected by Gulf Arab states is, to say the least, fanciful. While Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and the rest of the Arab monarchies have plenty of money, the likelihood of those countries actually expending their resources is about as likely as winning the lottery. The Gulf Arabs care about one thing and one thing only: overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, who is a lackey of the Iranians and whose defeat would therefore deal a huge setback to Tehran’s strategic position. For the Riyadh and the other Persian Gulf states, sending weapons and ammunition to rebel units on the ground is a much less risky bet than deploying their own soldiers into a war zone.
Hillary Clinton’s promotion of no-fly zones and safe zones is equally problematic because it cannot work without deploying thousands of U.S. ground troops to police them. This is one of the main reasons former chairman of the joint chiefs Martin Dempsey was reluctant to endorse the idea, writing in a letter to Congress in 2013 that “[t]housands of U.S. ground forces would be needed, even if positioned outside Syria, to support those physically defending the zones.”
Two years after that letter was sent, officials in the Pentagon hadn’t changed their tune very much. The spokesman for U.S. Central Command told Stars and Stripes in November 2015 that to actually create safe zones in hostile territory would require “a very large capable ground force to defend those civilians, otherwise it would remain vulnerable to attack from the ground.” Given Clinton’s insistence that no U.S. combat troops will be sent to Syria, and given the weakened state of the “moderate” rebels, her safe zones wouldn’t be thoroughly policed and therefore vulnerable to violations from Syrian ground units.
Americans won’t know until next year what a post-Obama Syrian policy will look like. But the solutions on the table right now are problematic, to say the least.