(CNSNews.com) – Donald Trump, facing the biggest test of his presidential campaign on Sunday night, contradicted his running mate over arguably the most critical foreign policy crisis of the moment, saying he would not use military force against the Assad regime to stop the carnage in Aleppo.
Answering questions about the humanitarian disaster in Syria’s biggest city, where the regime and its Russian ally are carrying out a lethal bombing campaign, Trump said he disagreed with Gov. Mike Pence over how the U.S. should respond.
During last Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, Pence had said that if Russia continues “to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime.”
When some of those words were read back by moderator Martha Raddatz during Sunday night’s debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Trump replied, “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree, I disagree. I think we have to knock out ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria].”
“Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS,” he continued. “We have people that want to fight both at the same time.”
Trump said he does not like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “at all – but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy.”
The administration disputes that the Assad regime and its Russian ally are genuinely fighting ISIS, charging that their main focus has been to weaken the broader rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad under the cover of fighting terrorism.
Hillary Clinton echoed that stance in her response to the Aleppo questions.
“There is a determined effort by the Russian air force to destroy Aleppo in order to eliminate the last of the Syrian rebels who are really holding out against the Assad regime,” she said. “Russia hasn’t paid any attention to ISIS. They’re interested in keeping Assad in power.”
During the Republican presidential primary campaign, Trump’s position on Syria and Russia’s intervention put him at odds with most of his GOP rivals.
“If Putin wants to go in and knock the hell out of ISIS I am all for it, 100 percent, and I can’t understand how anybody can be against it,” he said during a Fox Business Network/Wall Street Journal primary debate last November, six weeks after Russian launched its air campaign in support of Assad.
In Sunday’s debate, Trump characterized the Russian and Iranian support for Assad as a result of the foreign policy of President Obama and Clinton, who served as his first term secretary of state. Trump referenced in particular the nuclear agreement which he said had empowered and enriched Iran.
He also accused Clinton of wanting to arm Syrian rebels whose true colors were unknown.
“She talks in favor of the rebels. She doesn’t even know who the rebels are. Every time we take rebels, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else, we’re arming people. And you know what happens? They end up being worse than the people – look what she did in Libya with [Muammar] Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s out – it’s a mess.”
“It was a disaster,” Trump said of the Libyan intervention. “The fact is almost everything she's done in foreign policy has been a mistake and it’s been a disaster.”
For her part, Clinton said she would not support the use of U.S. ground forces in Syria.
“I think that would be a very serious mistake. I don’t think American troops should be holding territory which is what they would have to do as an occupying force. I don’t think that is a smart strategy.”
Clinton also said she supports an initiative to investigate the Assad regime and Russia for possible war crimes.
During the Syria segment of the debate the two sparred briefly over Obama’s infamous Syria “red line” episode.
“She was there as secretary of state with the so-called line in the sand,” Trump declared, to which Clinton retorted, “No, I wasn’t. I was gone. I hate to interrupt you but at some point we need to do some fact checking.”
“You were in contact with the White House and perhaps sadly, Obama probably still listened to you,” Trump continued. “I don't think he would be listening very much anymore. Obama draws the line in the sand. It was laughed at all over the world, what happened.”
Obama made the red line comment while Clinton was at the State Department – in August 2012 – when he said that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would be a “red line for us,” one that “would change my calculus.”
But his decision not to make good on the threat to carry out punitive strikes after the Assad regime killed at least 1,429 people in a chemical attack the following year, occurred when John Kerry had succeeded Clinton as secretary of state.