Clinton and Trump clash over Iraq, Syria, refugees
Washington - Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump clashed throughout the night at their third and final debate, less than three weeks before US presidential elections on November 8th.
The atmosphere was chilly. The candidates refused to shake hands before or after the event. Clinton frequently mocked Trump’s past remarks and his experience as host of a reality television show and Trump referred to the former secretary of State as “a nasty woman”.
Despite the candidates’ animosity, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News elicited substantive discussion and a sizeable portion of the debate focused on issues concerning the Middle East.
The event occurred as Iraqi government and allied forces launched an assault to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS). That provided an opening for Trump to repeat accusations that Clinton and US President Barack Obama essentially created ISIS by withdrawing US forces from Iraq. “We should have never let ISIS happen,” Trump said.
“She lost Mosul,” Trump said, adding “We don’t gain anything” by restoring Iraqi government control of Mosul because “Iran is taking over Iraq.” Iran, Trump said, should tell the United States “thank you very much for Mosul”.
Trump, however, never said what he would do differently in the fight against ISIS while Clinton repeated her promise to launch an “intelligence surge” to counter ISIS and to target the jihadist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
On Syria, Trump said the slaughter in Aleppo was the result of “bad decisions” by Clinton when she was secretary of State. “By fighting [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, who is much tougher and smarter than her and Obama”, the administration had forced the Syrian dictator to “align with Russia [and] Iran, who we made very powerful,” Trump claimed.
In fact, the Damascus-Moscow axis is decades old as are the ties between Assad’s minority Alawite community and Shia Iran.
Trump also appeared to reject the Obama administration’s call for Assad to step down: “If they ever did overthrow Assad,” Trump said, “you may very well end up with worse than Assad.” As for the anti- Assad rebels who are being supported by the United States, Trump said, “We don’t know who they are.”
Clinton repeated her pledge to establish a no-fly zone in Syria but, for the first time, acknowledged that it would have to be negotiated, not imposed, due to “legitimate fears” of a conflict with Russia, which has deployed advanced anti-aircraft systems in Syria that could pose a challenge to US warplanes.
Clinton maintained that “a no-fly zone could save lives and hasten the end of the conflict” as well as “make it clear to the Syrians and Russians that our purpose is to provide safe zones on the ground”.
The candidates sparred over the issue of allowing Syrian refugees to immigrate to the United States. Trump repeated his allegation that Clinton wants to increase the number of refugees entering the United States by 500%, something she has never publicly stated. So far this year, just more than 10,000 Syrian refugees have been allowed to enter the country, so even a five-fold increase would mean around 60,000- 65,000 — far fewer than have entered many European countries.
Trump claimed that “in many cases [the refugees] are ISIS-aligned” and that anyone who doubts this should “wait and see what happens in coming years” — a thinly veiled warning of terrorist incidents on US soil.
Shibley Telhami, a long-time Middle East analyst at the University of Maryland, noted that in the 15 years since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, only three refugees have been arrested and charged in the United States with planning terrorist activity.
Clinton said: “I am not going to let anyone into this country who is not vetted” but also said she would not turn down widows and children. Clinton pointed out that the perpetrator of last summer’s terrorist attack in Orlando “was born in Queens, the same place [Trump] was.”
Clinton commented on the issue of hacked Democratic Party e-mails, which have proven embarrassing to her campaign, and noted that US intelligence agencies confirmed that the hacking was conducted by Russia with the likely knowledge of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump condemned the hacking but expressed doubts about Putin’s involvement, who in any case “has outsmarted Hillary and Barack Obama at every step of the way”.
That exchange prompted Clinton to accuse Trump of being Putin’s “puppet”, to which the New York billionaire replied: “No puppet, no puppet… You’re the puppet!”
Trump repeated his argument that the United States must demand more from its allies and cannot continue paying the bill for their defence. Twice he mentioned Saudi Arabia in that regard.
Despite the feisty exchanges over the Middle East and other issues, the post-debate commentary was dominated by Trump’s provocative suggestion that he may not accept the election outcome. “I will look at it at the time,” he said. “I will keep you in suspense.”