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Syria will top the new president’s agenda

The war in Syria hasn’t been discussed much, even before news of Donald Trump’s remarks on women and Hillary Clinton’s emails and speeches to bankers.

But whomever becomes president, Syria and the fallout from the incredibly complex conflict that began five years ago will likely sit at the top of the administration’s foreign policy challenges.

As long as the war rages, Syrian refugees will seek asylum. In the past 12 months, 12,500 Syrian refugees have come to the United States. Clinton has proposed admitting 65,000 more over the next year. Trump has compared them to a Trojan horse, and said he would send back the ones already here.

But there are no good options for ending the bloodshed and the war. President Obama has rejected military engagement beyond U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

Trump says he has a plan to eliminate the Islamic State militants that have carved out a caliphate, but it’s secret because he doesn’t want to broadcast his intentions beyond vowing to “bomb the hell out of” them. He has said he would cooperate with Russia, which has been propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Trump has said  Assad is “bad,” but the United States has “bigger problems than Assad.” Though he has campaigned against involvement in foreign wars as in Iraq, he has in the past said he might be willing to commit ground troops to the fight against ISIS; the number has varied.

During the vice presidential debate, Mike Pence called for civilian “safe zones.” He said provocations by Russian planes flying over Syria should be met with “American strength,” and the United States should be prepared to use military force against Assad’s forces to stop its attacks on the city of Aleppo.

Clinton, a former secretary of state, has advocated much the same in fighting the Islamic State: a no-fly zone to provide a humanitarian haven  for civilians and stem the wave of refugees fleeing to Europe, cooperating with allies and possibly using U.S. military force to stop the Syrian government bombing of civilians. She has opposed sending ground troops, but would intensify the air-strike campaign by a U.S.-led coalition.

By the time either candidate enters the Oval Office, today’s assessments may be moot. Attempts to get a ceasefire collapsed. Attempted cooperation with Moscow has largley crumbled. The Syrian government, with Russian assistance, is turning Aleppo to rubble, and the United Nations envoy to Syrian has warned that the city may be destroyed by Christmas.

Real-time fact-checking and analysis of the 2nd 2016 presidential debate

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will meet on stage at Washington University in St. Louis at 9 p.m. Eastern.

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