Clinton-Trump Debate Ignores a Major Global Crisis--Syria

Patrick Goodenough | September 28, 2016 | 4:43am EDT
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Devastation in Saadallah al-Jabri square in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. (AP Photo/SANA, File)

( – Although national security policy purportedly was one of three topics in the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Monday night, arguably the world’s most serious crisis this fall of 2016 never got a mention.

Foreign policy issues did get an airing, but neither candidate, nor moderator Lester Holt, mentioned the Syrian civil war.

Indeed the country was mentioned just once in the 90-minute event, when Clinton expressed the hope that the military would within the year have pushed ISIS out of Iraq be able to “really squeeze them in Syria.”

Their silence over the conflict came at a time when the Assad regime and its Russian ally have escalated bombing assaults on rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. More a quarter of a million civilians are besieged by regime forces.

The U.N. has called the Syrian conflict the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Administration officials have characterized recent Russian and Syrian actions there as “barbarism” and U.N. officials say a deadly attack on an aid convoy last week – blamed by U.S. officials on Russia – could amount to a war crime.

The escalation came after the collapse of a ceasefire negotiated over months by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. A war of words has since erupted, and as of Tuesday there were no signs of a thaw.

Russia and Iran are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s major allies, and although both Russia and Iran did come up during Monday night’s debate, in neither case did the references apply to their actions in Syria.

The closest either candidate came to doing so was Clinton’s comment – unqualified – that “there’s no doubt that we have other problems with Iran.”

Trump could have criticized Clinton over the administration’s early handling of the civil war – she was secretary of state for almost two years after the crisis began in March 2011 – or challenged her on how she as president would move away from the Obama administration’s widely-panned approach.

Clinton could have taken Trump to task for his stance on Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the Republican primary campaign Trump said late last year he would “get along with” Putin, calling him “a powerful leader.” Last July he suggested he could reverse the U.S. policy of not recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

The American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS), a 501(c)3 humanitarian coalition, commented that neither candidate nor the moderator in the debate “took even a moment to shed light on the current atrocities taking place in Aleppo.”

ARCS spokesperson Lena Arkawi said the group was deeply disappointed, calling the oversight “far more telling than [Libertarian presidential candidate] Gary Johnson’s Aleppo gaffe.”

“The lives being lost, and the lives that can be saved, are far more important than the insults and bickering on display last night,” Arkawi said. “Let’s get real about what the next president will do to end these atrocities.”

“The most glaring foreign policy lacuna in the debate was the almost complete omission of the world’s most pressing strategic cum humanitarian challenge,” said Washington Institute for Near East Policy executive director Robert Satloff Tuesday.

“With Russian and Syrian bombs falling on civilians in Aleppo, the candidates offered no hint that they would ditch what one could call President Obama's policy of ‘strategic indifference’ and implement a more robust approach – one designed to create strategic balance on the ground in order to compel the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis to negotiate a political resolution.”

Christopher Griffin, executive director of the non-profit Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) in Washington and FPI senior policy analyst Evan Moore said moderators in the final two presidential debates should challenge the two on Syria, “arguably the central foreign policy failure of the Obama administration.”

In their two future encounters, moderators should press the candidates for specifics concerning how they would manage or solve the Syria crisis,” they wrote.

“For Clinton, that means addressing what lessons can be learned both from her experience as secretary of state and from the Obama administration’s subsequent efforts over the next four years. For Trump, this means carefully examining whether his proposed acquiescence to Russia’s role in the Middle East substantively differs from the Obama administration’s current policy.”


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