Hayward: Democrat Debate Filled with Illusions, Obfuscations, and Lies on Syria

Democratic presidential hopefuls (from L) Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former US Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg participate during the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by The New York Times and CNN at Otterbein …
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

War-torn Syria is one of the murkiest and bloodiest places on Earth. Little clarity could be found on the subject during Tuesday night’s Democrat presidential debate, during which the candidates energetically criticized President Donald Trump, but grew vague and evasive when asked to describe the situation in Syria or explain how they would handle it.

Former Vice President Joe Biden boasted about how much time he spent in the White House on foreign policy and Syria for a while, then seemingly threatened to declare war on Turkey, something neither he nor any other Democrat would actually do if they became president:

I would not have withdrawn the troops and I would not have withdrawn the additional thousand troops who are in Iraq, which are in retreat now, being fired on by Assad’s people. And the president of the United States saying, if those ISIS folks escape from the prisons they’re in, they’ll only go to Europe and won’t affect us.

It has been the most shameful thing that any president has done in modern history — excuse me, in terms of foreign policy. And the fact of the matter is, I’ve never seen a time — and I’ve spent thousands of hours in the Situation Room, I’ve spent many hours on the ground in those very places, in Syria and in Iraq, and guess what? Our commanders across the board, former and present, are ashamed of what’s happening here.

What I would do is I would be making it real clear to Assad that, in fact, where he’s going to have a problem — because Turkey is the real problem here. And I would be having a real lockdown conversation with Erdogan and letting him know that he’s going to pay a heavy price for what he has done now. Pay that price.

Note that there is no evidence of the Syrian army firing at American troops, but Biden might have been confusing Syrian with Turkish forces, which have reportedly fired uncomfortably close to American positions in Iraq.

A real journalist would have pointed out to Biden that some of the Syrian groups his administration told us were reliable “white hat” military allies have joined the Turks to attack the Kurds and asked how he failed to discern the true nature of those groups during the “thousands of hours” he boasted of spending in the White House Situation Room, but fortunately for Biden, CNN does not employ anyone who would ask a question like that of a Democrat.

The only candidate who did not try to stuff herself into a war hawk costume at the debate was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who got to speak next, and challenged both Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Mayor Pete Buttigieg on their positions. 

Gabbard has her own issues when it comes to Syria — which she attempted to deal with by denying that she has been a “Russian asset” or “Assad apologist” — and she professed to have qualms about President Trump’s sudden pullout from the Turkish border region, but she described the Turkish attack on the Kurds as “yet another negative consequence of the regime change war we’ve been waging in Syria,” a war the media was “championing and cheerleading” throughout the Obama administration.

Gabbard said she would take two steps on Syria: ending sanctions against the Assad regime “that are really a modern-day siege, the likes of which we are seeing Saudi Arabia wage against Yemen, that have caused tens of thousands of Syrian civilians to die and to starve,” and ending U.S. support for Syrian rebel forces, some of which are linked to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Neither of those steps would ameliorate Turkey’s concerns in any way or persuade it to halt its invasion of Syria.

Gabbard taunted Warren about living up to the anti-war stance she took so ostentatiously during the second Bush administration. Warren, boxed into a corner, had nothing meaningful to say beyond vague platitudes about getting out of the Middle East “the smart way” and complaints about Trump helping ISIS “get another foothold, a new lease on life.”

“I sit on the Armed Services Committee. I talk with our military leaders about this. I was in Iraq and went through the neighborhoods that ISIS destroyed. We need to get out, but we need to do this through a negotiated solution. There is no military solution in this region,” Warren said.

Turkey certainly seems to think there is a “military solution” to its security concerns, having worked for years to obtain a “negotiated solution” without satisfactory results. Russia and Iran somehow found a “military solution” to the Syrian civil war.

CNN moved very quickly along to Buttigieg, who was allowed to simultaneously claim he opposes “endless wars” but also call for an endless American presence in the worst quagmire on the planet.

Buttigieg, a military veteran, abandoned years of Democrat Party dogma about Afghanistan being the “good war” to argue that Syria is the only place American troops should be stationed.

Look, I didn’t think we should have gone to Iraq in the first place. I think we need to get out of Afghanistan. But it’s also the case that a small number of specialized, special operations forces and intelligence capabilities were the only thing that stood between that part of Syria and what we’re seeing now, which is the beginning of a genocide and the resurgence of ISIS,” he said.

Buttigieg claimed pulling out of Syria would be “taking away what makes America America” and would make “the world a more dangerous place,” which oddly enough is exactly the opposite of what Democrats said when they urged a pullout from Iraq. They used to get very angry at people who implied their criticism of the Iraq deployment would be “taking away what makes America America.” They routinely portrayed American soldiers in Iraq as helpless victims of the insurgency whose lives were being squandered.

Gabbard jumped in and called Buttigieg out on his claim to oppose endless wars while “continuing to support having U.S. troops in Syria for an indefinite period of time to continue this regime change war,” a policy that involves “providing arms in support to terrorist groups in Syria, like al-Qaeda, HTS, al-Nusra and others.”

Buttigieg never answered her question. Instead, he claimed he would not be able to look Afghan civilians or soldiers in the eye after Trump’s pullout from Syria, which is funny because not three minutes earlier he said he wanted to pull out from Afghanistan.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) refused to say whether he would support kicking Turkey out of NATO but insisted Turkey should no longer be seen as a U.S. ally “when they invade another country and engage in mass slaughter.” Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) evaded the same question about NATO membership, condemning Turkey’s actions as “outrageous” and a “horror” but advising continued engagement and negotiations with Turkey.

Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) said Trump endangered U.S. national security by “basically giving 10,000 ISIS fighters a get-out-of-jail-free card” and making the Islamic State one of the “big winners” in Syria, in addition to Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. It appears to have escaped her notice that the latter three were already the “big winners” in Syria before Trump’s election, even though she boasted of sitting on the Senate Intelligence Committee, where such things are presumably discussed.

Biden came back to wrap up the Syria section of the debate with a characteristically disjointed rant about how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “understands if he’s out of NATO, he’s in real trouble,” but also efforts to break up NATO are the demonic work of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“And with regard to regime change in Syria, that has not been the policy we change the regime. It has been to make sure that the regime did not wipe out hundreds of thousands of innocent people between there and the Iraqi border,” Biden insisted, forgetting that President Obama explicitly stated Assad had to go, and a very large number of innocent people were indeed “wiped out” or driven out of Syria on his and Obama’s watch.

Biden’s rambling closer typifies the problem the Democrats face on Syria: All of them, with the exception of no-hope candidate Tulsi Gabbard, want to virtue-signal as loud as they can and slam President Trump as hard as possible, but none of them wants to discuss the details of what has been happening in Syria since 2011 or propose a cogent strategy for changing conditions on the ground in a meaningful way. None of them talked about an “exit strategy,” a phrase they were very big on during the Iraq operation.

None of the Democrats wanted to discuss Turkey’s claims of a severe security threat from northeastern Syria, discuss why the international community did nothing to address those claims, or explain why the United States was held solely responsible for preventing Turkey from taking action. They treated the notion of Russian and Syrian involvement against the Turkish assault as inherently outrageous without explaining why the Syrian government should not be held responsible for protecting its own citizens and securing its own borders. They complained about escaping ISIS prisoners without discussing why thousands of them were still parked in Kurdish prison camps and how long they should be left there.

None of the Democrats was asked to present a war plan for fighting Turkey or discuss how much the U.S. depends on Turkish bases for operations in the Middle East. None of them, not even Biden, was pressed on how the Obama administration set the table for current events. None of them acknowledged the difficulty of getting reliable information from any party involved in the savage Syrian civil war, although Gabbard came close when she pointed out how dodgy some of the groups supported by the Obama administration were. 

And of course, CNN would not dream of asking the Democrat candidates — several of whom are sitting senators — why their caucus did not authorize military force against Turkey to protect the Kurds, instead spending all of its time on an impeachment crusade against President Trump. Trump said he wanted to pull troops out of Syria almost a year ago, and Erdogan was threatening to invade long before that. The Democrats had plenty of time to pass the appropriate congressional resolutions and send a strong message to Turkey, but that would have involved putting real political capital on the line instead of sniping from the sidelines.

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