Some new ground was broken in the debate by both candidates on how they see the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and what they would do about it.
First, what was not new: Clinton repeated her support for President Obama’s position on the current Iraqi offensive in Mosul — that is, to help Iraqi troops in what will be a tough fight on the ground, then move toward the Islamic State bastion in Raqqa, Syria.
Trump berated the administration for “stupidly” announcing the offensive was about to begin. And he again blamed Clinton and Obama for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011, leaving a “vacuum” that allowed the Islamic State to grow.
Although the withdrawal deal was negotiated by George W. Bush, and the Iraqi government refused to allow U.S. forces to remain, Trump is not the first to accuse the Obama administration of not pressing Baghdad hard enough on the issue.
Trump also claimed that the Islamic State is “now in 32 countries,” a total many multiples of that listed by U.S. authorities. According to a Congressional Research Service report released this summer, organized groups in six countries have been accepted as Islamic State affiliates beyond Iraq and Syria: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Yemen. Groups in a handful of other countries have claimed affiliation but are not recognized, either by the Islamic State itself, or by U.S. intelligence, or both.
What was new: Trump linked the timing of the Mosul offensive, which began last weekend, to Clinton’s campaign. “The only reason they did it is because she’s running, they want to look tough, they want to look good,” he said, presumably of the pro-Clinton administration.
More likely, to the extent the United States influenced what was essentially an Iraqi decision, the Obama administration sees what would be a significant victory over the Islamic State as a legacy issue. It wants to be able to declare victory in clearing the militants from their only remaining and most important stronghold before President Obama leaves office.
Trump also declared Iran “the big winner” in a Mosul victory, although it’s unclear whether he meant that it would be better to leave the Islamic State in charge there.
While it is no secret that Iran has significant influence over the Shiite-led Iraqi government, planning for the retaking of the largely Sunni city of Mosul has left Iranian-backed Shiite militias largely out of the fight. Many would argue that a U.S.-assisted victory against the Islamic State throughout Iraq will increase, rather than decrease, U.S. influence there.
Clinton responded that she was “amazed that he seems to think that the Iraqi government and our allies launched the attack on Mosul to help me in the election.” That caused Trump to interject, “that’s because we don’t gain anything….Iran is taking over Iraq.”
On Syria, Trump repeated his claim of the last debate that the battle for Aleppo is over, despite the ongoing fight in that city. “What do you need, a signed document?” he asked.
Trump then appeared to acquiesce to the ongoing Syrian and Russian air bombardment of the city, or at least to give President Bashar al-Assad credit for being “tougher” than the Obama administration, which supports the Syrian opposition.
“A lot of this is because of Hillary Clinton” for “fighting Assad, who turned out to be a lot tougher than she thought” and “much smarter than her and Obama.”
Assad’s wisdom, Trump said, was that “he aligned with Russia, and is now also aligned with Iran.”
Assad’s alignment with Russia and Iran, of course, precedes the Syrian civil war by decades. Both have long been his primary patrons, and backed the previous Syrian dictator, Assad’s father, before him. Both are protecting their own interests in Syria.
For her part, Clinton put some flesh on the bones of her support for establishment of a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Syria. It “could save lives,” she said, and hasten the end of the war.
She said she was “well aware of legitimate concerns,” some of which were raised by moderator Chris Wallace. They include direct U.S. involvement in yet another Middle East conflict on the ground, and the possibility of a wider war with Russia — which has completed installation of a nationwide air-defense system over Syria.
Those problems, Clinton said, could be avoided by persuading Russia and Syria that such a safe zone, presumably protected by the air forces of the United States and its partners in Europe and the region, “is in the best interest of the people on the ground.”
“This would not be done just on the first day,” she said. “It would take a lot of negotiations, making clear to Russia and Syria” that the goal was to protect the millions of Syrian civilians who have been dislocated inside the country or have left Syria altogether.
It is a novel proposal, and one for which there is virtually no chance of success.
The very aircraft that civilians would be protected against would be Russian and Syrian — both countries have repeatedly said that such zones would not only be an actionable violation of Syrian sovereignty, but would be considered targetable havens for the opposition.