‘World War III’? How Trump and Clinton measure up on Syria

US soldiers ride a military vehicle in al-Kherbeh village, northern Aleppo province, Syria on Oct. 24.

US fighter jets are firing bombs in the same patch of Syrian sky as Russian planes. US troops are on the ground in Syria’s northeast, directing Kurdish fighters in battle against the Islamic State. US-supplied weapons are being used by “friendly” rebels in the south.

In short, America is deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and it will be one of the biggest foreign policy challenges for the next president.

So what do Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton intend to do there if elected? They didn’t really get into the issue during the debates, but have sparred over it some in the aftermath. On Tuesday, Trump claimed Clinton’s Syria policy will "end up in World War III.”

Part of the answer to that question lies in where they think the current president has gone wrong.

What Obama did

US policy on Syria under Barack Obama has been wrongheaded — on that much, both presidential candidates agree. Exactly where they believe it's gone wrong, however, is a matter for debate.

Obama has tried to walk a thin line between pushing for the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while simultaneously taking the fight to ISIS. The US president has approved limited support for moderate Syrian rebels in an effort to inflict enough damage on Assad to force him to the negotiating table.

US action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, with allies on the ground, has seen steady progress. The group has lost close to a third of its territory, and faces losing the largest city under its control: Mosul, Iraq.

America’s efforts to force out Assad, on the other hand, have largely failed. A Pentagon program to train a moderate rebel army was canceled last October. A separate, covert CIA program to send arms to already existing rebel groups has had slightly more success, but still fell short.

Some critics say Obama’s focus on ISIS and failure to properly engage Assad have allowed the Syrian president and his Russian ally to brutally crush all opposition to Assad’s rule, and commit war crimes in the city of Aleppo, with no threat of recourse. Others argue that any attempts to weaken Assad only embolden the Islamic State, and that the latter is worse than the Syrian government.

Who are the bad guys?

But what do the candidates say? For both, it’s a question of priorities. Clinton favors putting much more military pressure on Assad, while also tackling ISIS. Trump, on the other hand, despite vague and confused statements on the topic, favors a full focus on ISIS, while leaving the rest of Syria to Assad and Russia. The former requires much more US involvement than the latter, so broadly speaking the dividing lines are Clinton’s interventionist approach and Trump’s tendency to leave Assad alone.

As secretary of state, in 2012, Clinton advocated direct US support for rebels fighting Assad forces. Obama rejected the plan in favor of non-lethal support, only to later send arms. Clinton has also spoken in favor of a no-fly zone to protect civilians: “A no-fly zone can save lives and hasten the end of the conflict,” Clinton said. She added that it would “take a lot of negotiation. It would also take making it clear to the Russians and the Syrians that our purpose here was to provide safe zones on the ground.”

She explained her reasoning for a more involved approach in a defense of her record as secretary of state, and a rebuke of Obama’s policy: “Nobody stood up to Assad and removed him, and we have had a far greater disaster in Syria than we are currently dealing with right now in Libya.”

For Trump, ISIS is the priority.

“I say the first thing we have to do is get rid of ISIS before we start thinking about Syria,” he told Reuters on Tuesday. “Assad is secondary, to me, to ISIS.”

Tackling ISIS is the only specific Syria policy proposal on Trump’s website. The Republican candidate has yet to spell out what his approach to Assad would be once ISIS is defeated.

Russia changed the game

Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war severely limited US options in one fell swoop. In September 2015, Russia began carrying out airstrikes against what it described as “terrorists” — in reality the Russian air force targeted any group that opposed Assad, including US-backed rebel groups.

Until then, there remained a remote possibility that the US might enforce a no-fly zone, grounding Assad’s jets and creating some form of safe area in rebel-held northern Syria. Russia’s involvement, which later grew to include special advisers and troops, effectively blocked the plan by drastically increasing the risk of a Russia-US confrontation in the skies above Syria.

It is this risk that Trump is referring to when he talks about Clinton’s policy starting World War III. Clinton’s plan might have made a lot more sense when she was secretary of state, by that reasoning, before Russia became involved in Syria. Now, the risks are high.

James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said this week that he “wouldn’t put it past” Russia to shoot down a US plane in the face of a no-fly zone that threatened Russian aircraft.

However, more recently, Clinton has talked about a “negotiated no-fly zone” — that is, a deal with Russia to create agreed-upon areas where no jets bomb. This could avert a World War III, but it also relies on Russia forcing Assad to ground his own warplanes, which remains unlikely.

Advocates of greater intervention now favor much more support from Washington for moderate Syrian rebel groups to balance the power and bring Assad to account — something Clinton also supports.

John Allen, a retired US Marine general who led the anti-ISIS coalition from 2014 to 2015, and Charles R. Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a think tank, argue this kind of intervention is necessary to “end mass civilian killing; to protect what remains of the moderate opposition; to undermine extremist narratives of Western indifference to injustice; and to force Assad to the negotiating table.” 

There is a strong possibility that Clinton may soften her policy if she becomes president. She could drop plans for a no-fly zone in favor of greater support for rebels.

The view from Syria

Opinions on US intervention in Syria are as divided as the country itself. Most Syrians — even those who oppose Assad — are wary of it. Government supporters are of course against it:

Civilians living in eastern Aleppo, which has been leveled by Syrian and Russian jets, are understandably supportive of anything that will stop their homes from being bombed.

“Hopefully Mrs. Clinton will be a person who says what she means and means what she says,” said Wissam, a schoolteacher living in east Aleppo.

Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, an anti-government activist, expressed some skepticism. “For five years we have heard thousands of promises saying that there should be a no-fly zone in Syria. Does anything happen? No. It’s the opposite. The planes are more and more in the sky of Syria.


Hillary Clinton:

  • No-fly zone to protect civilians and pressure Assad to negotiate
  • More intense airstrikes against ISIS
  • Greater support for Kurdish and Sunni allies on the ground
  • Take in more refugees

Donald Trump:

  • Work with allies in the Middle East to defeat ISIS
  • Suspend immigration from countries with a history of terrorism
  • Fewer refugees
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