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2016 Candidates React to Russia’s Campaign in Syria

In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, both Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina have called for the United States and its coalition partners to establish a no-fly zone in Syria to protect U.S.-backed rebel groups – effectively challenging Russia to a military confrontation if it wants to bomb them.

Following is a review of where the 2016 candidates stand on the Syrian situation, beginning with Fiorina and Clinton, and the differences between their no-fly zone proposals.  Only those candidates who have made statements about the Russian campaign and how to respond since the air strikes began are included.

Carly Fiorina: As mentioned, Fiorina has called for the Western powers to protect their allies in the Syrian rebellion.  “I believe we must tell the Russians that we will conduct… we will secure a no-fly zone around anti-Assad rebel forces that we’re supporting,” she told Sean Hannity of Fox News on Wednesday night.

When Hannity asked if this meant using force against the Russians, Fiorina replied, “Well, hopefully not.  Hopefully, if we are signalling clearly to the Russians our intention, it will not come to that.  But if it does come to that, I think we must be prepared.”

Fiorina emphasized the importance of signaling to Russia that they would not “get to move into the Middle East and become the dominant outside power,” while criticizing the weakness of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry – in Ukraine, as well as the Middle East – for making the Russians believe such a move was feasible.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton pitched her no-fly zone as a humanitarian gesture, rather than a strategic move to protect U.S.-aligned rebel forces.  “I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what’s happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees,” she said on Thursday.

MSNBC notes this is a significant break from the Obama White House, which refused to consider the possibility of a no-fly zone on the eve of the Russian bombing campaign.  “It raises a whole set of logistical questions about how exactly what would be enforced, what sort of resources would be used to actually protect that area,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.

MSNBC also credits Clinton for wishing to arm the Syrian rebels long before the Administration implemented such a policy, but notes she has not previously called for a no-fly zone, even though the humanitarian horrors she described have been going on for years.  Clinton is much less realistic than Fiorina about what a no-fly zone would entail – it wouldn’t stop any “carnage on the ground,” while stopping carnage “from the air” would entail the serious possibility of dogfights with Russian fighter jets, in the highly likely event they chose to defy the interdiction.

Fiorina may be wrong to propose such a measure, but at least she’s serious.  Clinton is just practicing zero-cost gesture politics, talking about humanitarianism while trying to create a little space between herself and Obama’s catastrophic foreign policy.

Donald Trump: Trump, like Fiorina, cited Obama’s provocative weakness as the reason for the Russian action, but suggested he had no serious problem with the Russians bombing ISIS.

“They don’t respect our president. They really don’t respect us anymore. And that’s why they’re doing this,” Trump said in a CNN interview.  “At the same time, if they want to hit ISIS, that’s OK with me.”

Unfortunately, Russia is not bombing ISIS, although Trump claimed “I hear they’re hitting both” the Islamic State and other Syrian opposition groups.  He predicted that would be Russia’s focus moving forward.

“If Russia wants to go in and if Russia want to fight — in particular ISIS, and they do and one of the reasons they do is because they don’t want ISIS coming into their country and that’s going to be the next step. So that’s why they’re there. I think they will be fighting ISIS,” Trump said.

He also seemed to take a dim view of both Bashar Assad and the rebels we have supported against him.  He denounced Assad as a “bad guy” the Russians were “probably trying to prop up,” but also complained, “We always give weapons, we give billions of dollars in weapons and then they turn them against us. We have no control. So we don’t know the other people that we’re supposed to be backing.”

In a Tuesday interview before the Russian bombing began, Trump suggested that as bad as Assad might be, he was better than ISIS, and it might be best to let the Russians secure Assad’s regime by taking on the Islamic State.

“And I’m saying, ‘Why are we knocking ISIS and yet at the same time we’re against Assad?’ Let them fight, take over the remnants. But more importantly, let Russia fight ISIS, if they want to fight ‘em … in Syria,” Trump advised.

Marco Rubio: Rubio accurately predicted Russia’s action in Syria during the second Republican primary debate, right down to the timetable: “Here’s what you’re going to see in the next few weeks: the Russians will begin to fly combat missions in that region, not just targeting ISIS, but in order to prop up Assad. He will also, then, turn to other countries in the region and say, ‘America is no longer a reliable ally, Egypt. America is no longer a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia. Begin to rely on us.’ What he is doing is he is trying to replace us as the single most important power broker in the Middle East, and this president is allowing it.”

On Friday, Rubio criticized Obama for continuing to spin Russia’s actions by suggesting that they might be accidentally or “indiscriminately” hitting Syrian rebels other than ISIS.  “That’s absurd,” scoffed Rubio.  “Vladimir Putin is deliberately targeting all the non-ISIS rebels. The more moderate they are, the more he’s going to target them.”

“He’s trying to thin out the opposition so that the only opposition left in Syria to Assad is ISIS, and at that point he’ll be able to force world to support Assad,” Rubio elaborated. “I don’t understand why the White House doesn’t see it and why the President and his administration don’t understand that.”

In a speech in Iowa on Friday, Rubio called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a gangster and a thug.”  He warned that Russia and the U.S. were “barreling toward a second Cold War.”

Rubio said he would respond with sanctions against Russian officials and companies, including freezing their assets in the United States and banning visas; enhanced defensive cooperation with Ukraine; and limited diplomatic engagement with Moscow.

“I will immediately provide Ukraine with lethal military assistance and increased intelligence sharing to ensure that Putin’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty comes at a price,” said Rubio.

Rubio charged that no matter what Putin says, “he is not involved in Syria out of an altruistic desire to defeat ISIL,” but was primarily interested in propping up the “vicious dictator” Assad and retaining Syria as a “client state for Russia.”

John Kasich: The Ohio governor called for a no-fly zone, speaking in humanitarian terms similar to Hillary Clinton’s, but also criticizing Russia in such terms that he seems to envision something as confrontational as what Carly Fiorina proposed.

“The Syrian opposition and three of Syria’s regional neighbors, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, insist that the violent actions of Bashar al-Assad’s government against its own people, described by the UN as crimes against humanity, disqualify Assad from any further legitimate claim to rule the country,” said Kasich in a statement posted at his campaign website.  “All that Mr. Putin’s attempts to keep the Assad government alive will therefore achieve is to extend the Syrian people’s suffering. Saudi Arabia has stated that Mr. Putin’s actions in Syria may cause it to intervene militarily in Syria. To prevent further escalation and suffering by civilians and refugees, the U.S. and its regional and West European allies need to establish sanctuary areas in Syria that are protected by ‘no fly zones.’”

Kasich went further and advocated a “regional coalition of ground troops to defeat al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq,” composed of troops from the U.S., Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the Arab League.  This would make for a tense situation, given that a joint Syrian-Iranian ground force with Russian air cover is soon to take the field.

Kasich, like Rubio, said that Russian president Vladimir Putin was not primarily interested in fighting the Islamic State.  “No one should be deluded into thinking that Russian military intervention is a solution to Syria’s problems. Putin seeks to advance Russian interests in the region. Nor should we allow Mr. Putin to use the Syrian crisis to distract attention from his ongoing aggression in Ukraine,” said the governor.

Jeb Bush: The former Florida governor said that Putin’s actions were “destroying” Russia’s relationship with the United States.  “This is outrageous,” Bush said on MSNBC.  “He’s attacking the Syrian Free Army… the remnants of an army that we forgot to support, during the time when it had strength, and now, instead of us creating a no-fly zone, he’s in effect saying that there’s a no-fly zone, including American air forces.”

Bush thought the Russians moved, in part, to head off impending action by nations such as France and Germany against ISIS.

Bush suggested, like Rubio, that “sanctions ought to be on the table,” in concert with our European allies.  He cited his previous comments about Syria strategy, which included establishing a no-fly zone against Syrian air forces and preventing the Assad regime from using indiscriminate weapons, such as the infamous “barrel bombs,” to kill his own people, but acknowledged that the Russian intervention would make such measures much more difficult to implement.

Bush worried that Russia’s humiliation of the Obama Administration would make potential allies in the Middle East, and elsewhere, think twice about seeing the United States as a “reliable partner.”

As for the Assad regime, Bush was still adamant that the dictator had to go, which would obviously represent a serious strategic conflict with Russia.  “He’s killed 200,000 people,” he said, recalling a recent encounter with a woman who had helped a dozen of her Syrian Christian relatives escape from the bloodshed.  “Should we just sit back and accept this slaughter?  Should we allow for millions of people to be displaced?”

Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor took particular issue with Donald Trump’s comments that Russia should given some room in Syria to fight the Islamic State.  “The American people really want the future of whether ISIS attacks the United States to be determined by Russia and Vladimir Putin?  I don’t think so,” Christie said on Fox News Wednesday.

“For 40 years, we’ve kept Russia out of the Middle East,” Christie said. “Forty years we’ve kept them out of the Middle East and this president is now going to let them back in? They’re teaming with Iran. Our good friends in Iran…this is the beginning of Russia trying to replace America as the major power in the Middle East.”

Like Rubio, Christie referred to Vladimir Putin as a thug (an “articulate, smart thug,” to be exact) and insisted that “anybody else who thinks that we should allow Russia to take on ISIS and we should take a back seat has its fundamental misunderstanding.”  He did not specify what actions he would take against Russia, ISIS, or the Assad regime.

Rand Paul: Senator Paul described Syrian president Bashar Assad as “an evil man who has gassed his people and is at least partly if not mostly responsible for this.”  He went on to assert there were 1,500 terrorist groups operating in the Middle East, and it was very difficult to determine which elements of Assad’s opposition were truly “moderate.”

“I think really the first thing to understand is that there may be no good guys in this,” Paul concluded, seeming to grant some leeway to the Russians over their choice of bombing targets.

As for the current situation, Paul warned that the possibility of a military accident between Russian and American planes over Syria was high, and said it was important to “have open lines of communication” to avoid an incident.

On Thursday, Paul recalled that “only a year or two ago, President Obama, Hillary Clinton and many Republicans wanted to bomb Assad.”  He said that if this attack had been carried out, “ISIS may well now be in control of Syria,” so “we need to think before we act and understand that intervention doesn’t always acheive the intended consequences.”  From this, it seems fair to conclude that Senator Paul would not take any strong action to oppose Russia’s judgment that Assad should remain in power in Syria.

Rick Santorum: “I have no problem with the Russians protecting their security.  Vladimir Putin is acting very rationally,” Santorum said on Wednesday.

He did, however, lament that President Obama had reduced American prestige to the point that Putin would launch airstrikes just two days after meeting with Obama at the U.N.  “There’s no consequence to lying to this President,” Santorum said.

He argued that Syria was essentially a lost cause where “we have no good options,” so the United States should shift its efforts to fighting ISIS in Iraq.

Lindsey Graham: Senator Graham said Russia’s intervention in Syria was “a complete shift of power,” and the Iran-Russia-Syria alliance is “bad news for us,” because Syria would remain mired in bloody civil war, giving Sunni radical Islamists a recruiting tool.

“The Syrians will not accept Assad as their leader, so they’ll keep fighting and that means ISIL actually gets stronger, not weaker, more likely to attack our homeland. So this relationship between Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Russia is just a very bad deal for the region and eventually, our homeland,” Graham warned in an interview with radio host Chris Stigall on Thursday.

Graham called Donald Trump “completely naive” for suggesting that Russia should be left to run a war in Syria with Iran against ISIS.  “It means that our allies, the King of Jordan and our friends in Lebanon are at risk. It means ISIL gets stronger, but they also have a recruiting tool for the ages. It means the Syrian people never reconcile themselves. The war goes on and Syria begins to spread and take down the entire Mid-East,” said the Senator.

In another interview with Brian Kilmeade of Fox News on Friday, Graham called President Obama “incompetent” and said Secretary of State John Kerry was “delusional on the politics of the Middle-East, Putin, Iran and just the entire situation over there.”

He repeated his warning that Obama’s weakness would make Sunni Arab powers nervous, and that terrorists would gain strength in the Russian-Iranian Middle East: “If I am an Arab, I am really worried about what’s going on, the Sunni/Arab nations now have in their backyard, a stronger Iran, more weapons, more money and an alliance with Russia that gives them a military advantage that they will enjoy today and Syria is going to be a launching pad for the next 9/11.”

As for what Graham would do about the situation in Syria, he told radio host Hugh Hewitt he would support a no-fly zone, and Russian pilots should understand that “if you cross this line, you’ll get shot down.”  He also thought it foolish to talk about having “constructive talks” with the Russians as long as they were propping up Assad, whose ouster has long been a focus of U.S. policy.

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