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Opinion Trump has no idea what’s going on in Syria

Rescue workers work the site of airstrikes in eastern Aleppo, Syria, in September. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via Associated Press)

The Trump campaign has no clear policy on how to stop the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Donald Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, don’t agree on the way forward. But the more important takeaway from Sunday night’s presidential debate is that Trump doesn’t grasp the basic facts of the situation, doesn’t understand the history of the conflict and doesn’t seem curious enough to figure it out.

Monday morning, the Trump campaign was in full spin mode trying to pretend that Trump and Pence didn’t openly disagree on whether or not the United States should consider using military force against the regime of Bashar al-Assad to stop the slaughter of civilians in Aleppo. On CNN’s New Day, Pence accused moderator Martha Raddatz, of ABC News, of mischaracterizing his statements from his own national debate last week.

In fact, Raddatz asked Trump repeatedly to address the same question Pence answered. Namely, what would Trump do about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and should the United States be prepared to use military force against the Assad regime to halt the bombing there? In his debate, Pence clearly stated he supported such a policy.

“He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree. I disagree,” Trump said during the debate. “I believe we have to get ISIS. We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved.”

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Trump and Pence disagree on Syria, as they do on many foreign policy issues, not the least of which is whether the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a good idea (although Trump seemed to support it at the time). But the more troubling parts of Trump’s answers to Raddatz on Syria came earlier in the exchange.

Trump’s telling of the history of U.S. involvement in Syria and his explanation of the current state of play was riddled with errors. He began by saying that Hillary Clinton was secretary of state when President Obama made the decision not to enforce his own “red line” after Assad used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 people. That happened in September 2013, several months after Clinton left office.

“No, I wasn’t. I was gone,” Clinton interrupted. Trump recovered by referring to Clinton’s meetings with the administration after she left office and speculating that she influenced Obama’s decision.

“You were in total contact with the White House, and perhaps, sadly, Obama probably still listened to you,” he said.

Trump didn’t seem aware that Obama disregarded Clinton’s Syria advice in 2012 and thereafter, when she advocated for more arms to the Syrian rebels and for safe zones inside Syria. He and Pence now say they support safe zones.

Trump then said there was no way to know who the Syrian rebels are, although he seemed sure they are worse than the Assad regime.

“She talks in favor of the rebels,” Trump said. “She doesn’t even know who the rebels are. You know, 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.”

The U.S. government and its allies in Syria have spent years developing contacts with dozens of rebel groups. Some rebel groups have committed crimes, but the vast majority of the killing and atrocities have been perpetrated by the Assad regime and its partners.

As Raddatz tried to tell Trump his time was up, Trump insisted on continuing with a string of falsehoods about what is happening in Syria.

“I don’t like 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,” he said.

In fact, Assad and his partners have largely avoided fighting the Islamic State in favor of fighting the rebels closer to their territory and attacking civilian areas under rebel control. The Assad-Russia-Iran alliance has existed for decades.

The most shocking error Trump uttered about Syria came when Raddatz asked him what he thinks will happen if Aleppo falls to the regime?

“I think that it basically has fallen. Okay? It basically has fallen,” Trump said. Then he quickly changed the subject to wonder aloud why the Iraqi government doesn’t do a “sneak attack” to liberate Mosul, it’s second largest city.

The Assad regime and its Russian partners are bombarding eastern Aleppo each and every day in a brutal campaign to crush the opposition under siege there by terrorizing the civilian population. The U.S. government and international experts agree Syria and Russia are committing war crimes there.

For Trump to deny that any hope exists for the people of Aleppo to resist this onslaught amounts to turning a blind eye to the ongoing atrocities. It’s probably not a coincidence that Trump’s description of the situation in Syria largely tracks with the Russian government propaganda line, because Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have roughly the same worldview.

The bottom line is that Trump doesn’t understand basic facts about the crises in the Middle East and he stubbornly refuses to learn. That’s even more troubling than his advocacy for a policy that would actually make these problems worse.