The two presumptive nominees in the US presidential race, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have now laid out their respective views on American foreign policy. And perhaps the first question to ask, following Mr. Trump’s speech on Wednesday, is this: Do they agree at all on what should be done about Syria?
The question is front and center for two reasons. President Obama said this week – without dispute from the two candidates – that Islamic State, which is mainly based in Syria, is “the most urgent threat” to the West. The other reason is that the two main aggressors in Syria, IS and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, have caused the largest humanitarian crisis in decades. The double wars there have created millions of refugees and killed more than a quarter-million civilians. By far, Mr. Assad’s war has forced the greatest tragedy.
Surprisingly, both Trump and Mrs. Clinton would go beyond the current president’s cautious aerial strikes on IS (and his military inaction against the Assad regime). Trump won’t say exactly what he would do against IS other than that its “days are numbered.”
Clinton, meanwhile, would follow Mr. Obama’s current course but with a crucial added measure. She would use air power to enforce a “no-fly zone” over parts of Syria in hopes of creating a haven for Syrians fleeing both IS and Assad’s bombs.
Clinton’s no-fly proposal is more humanitarian in nature than a strategic blow against IS or Assad. Yet it has a possible overlap with Trump: He also wants the US to save at least one group in the Middle East, albeit only Christians, and he also says the US “will always help save lives and indeed humanity itself.”
The rest of the presidential campaign will probably clarify their positions on what to do in Syria. But it is important to recognize that Clinton, Trump, and Obama have one similar objective: safety for civilians. They may differ on military intervention, but, to varying degrees, they speak for the innocence of those caught in a brutal war.
Supporting this consensus is critical because Obama’s strategy against Assad is faltering. A tentative truce that began in March between the regime and its armed, pro-democracy opponents is breaking down. And planned peace talks have yet to take place.
As Secretary of State John Kerry recently told Congress, the US may need a “Plan B.” What might that be? Frederic Hof, the former special adviser on Syria to Clinton when she was secretary of State, says the focus should be on protecting Syrian civilians. Now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, he argues that “civilian protection is the sole portal to political progress in Syria.”
Civilians in Syria must somehow not remain in the bull’s-eye for both IS and Assad forces. As long as Syrians keep fleeing, “a political solution will go nowhere,” Mr. Hof says.
He asks this humanitarian question: “Will Washington and its partners come up with a ‘Plan B’ to complicate the ability of the Assad regime to massacre people at industrial levels?”
Both Europe and the US have lately stepped up their assistance to Syrian civilians, both inside and outside the country. This includes NATO’s efforts to prevent dangerous smuggling of refugees by sea and an increase in legal migration of Syrian refugees from Turkey.
More can certainly be done. And if civilian protection is the best “portal” toward solving the Syrian riddle, then the US presidential campaign may be off to a good start.