Why Syria Is the Debate Question No One Wants to Answer

Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP
Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP

The question of Syria is one that both Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would both prefer to avoid in Monday night’s first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

When asked about it, both Trump and Clinton prefer to divert the discussion to the fight against the Islamic State — comically so, in the case of Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook last week on MSNBC. But there are no easy answers on Syria for either candidate.

Clinton has more for which to answer on Syria, for two reasons. One is that she was Secretary of State when Syria imploded. Since leaving office, she has tried to portray herself as more hawkish on Syria than President Barack Obama was — their one supposed area of policy disagreement. But it was Secretary of State Clinton who called dictator Bashar al-Assad a “reformer” and sent U.S. ambassador Robert Ford on a futile mission to re-establish and improve relations with the awful Assad regime.

That leads to the other reason Clinton bears responsibility for Syria, which is that her party frustrated any effort by President George W. Bush to do something about Assad. The Bush administration threatened Syria with possible military action if it continued to help would-be jihadis infiltrate into Iraq. The Democrats then set about proving that diplomacy was a better answer than war, sending a rogues’ gallery of useful idiots to have pictures taken with Assad and frustrate military pressure.

So Clinton does not want to answer questions on Syria directly, because she helped create the problem, and did nothing about it when she had the chance. (If she really disagreed with Obama’s policy, she ought to have resigned, given that hundreds of thousands of innocent civilian lives hung in the balance.) She stayed silent as her successor, John Kerry, cemented Assad’s hold on power and Russia and Iran’s influence with an unenforceable chemical weapons deal and a series of failed cease-fires.

But Trump is also in a bind on Syria. He has suggested that the U.S. work with Russia to defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS. Effectively, that means allowing Russia, and Iran, to shore up the Assad regime, which is now bombing civilians in Aleppo. Trump is adamant that Syrian refugees be helped within the Middle East rather than encouraged to swamp Western borders, and he is right. But that does not address the fundamental problem of how those millions of people have become refugees.

Here is the ugly truth about Syria: there is no solution without confronting Iran, and Russia’s involvement means confronting Iran has become that much harder. The American people have no appetite for another major overseas conflict, even if there is public support for action against ISIS. And both candidates know that, which is why both avoid the Syrian war.

History will judge Obama harshly for Syria, but the problem will remain, sadly, and await a day when it is no longer a burden but a threat.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.