US unlikely to move against Assad after elections
Washington - The United States is likely to step up its military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria after a new US president is sworn in next January but unseating Syrian President Bashar Assad is unlikely to be a priority.
Both major party nominees — Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump — have said they would escalate the battle against ISIS if elected. Neither, however, has emphasised the need to end a war that since 2011 has killed about 400,000 people and forced another 5 million to flee to neighbouring countries and beyond.
Clinton has said she would order more air strikes on ISIS and “a broader target set” for US and allied warplanes, as well as improve intelligence gathering. She also has called for more US special forces to be deployed against ISIS and more equipment provided to “viable Syrian opposition groups”.
With costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fresh in voters’ minds, Clinton has stressed that she does not want “100,000 Americans in combat in the Middle East”. As for Assad, Clinton said she wants a political solution to the war and favours the creation of no-fly zones “that will stop Assad from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air”.
She has not said how such a plan could be implemented in the face of opposition by Russia, Assad’s main international backer.
Trump has promised to send up to 30,000 US troops to fight ISIS. “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS and we are going to defeat them fast,” Trump said at the Republican National Convention.
Trump also is reluctant to have the United States play a more active role in political efforts to push Assad from power, a goal of America’s regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. “We must abandon the failed policy of nation building and regime change that Hillary Clinton pushed in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria,” Trump said, referencing Clinton’s 2009-13 tenure as US secretary of State.
In an interview with the New York Times, Trump said bringing down Assad was not as important as fighting ISIS. The Syrian president was “a bad man” who had “done horrible things” but ISIS was a far greater threat to the United States, he said.
The reluctance by both candidates to invest political capital and energy in ousting Assad clashes with the opinion of a group of US diplomats who demanded a more robust stance against the Syrian president. In an internal memo leaked to the New York Times in June, 51 mostly mid-level US State Department officials involved in the Syria issue called for the use of military force against Assad’s government to push it to adhere to a ceasefire and “to negotiate a political solution in good faith”.
Some analysts say Washington already has spent too much time and effort on Assad and should focus on ISIS instead. Clinton is caught in the crossfire more than Trump because she was secretary of State when the conflict broke out and ISIS emerged.
Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, told US cable network MSNBC that Washington focused on getting rid of Assad for too long, ignoring the growing threat posed by ISIS.
“The US priority in Syria has not been to defeat ISIS; it has been to overthrow Assad,” Sachs said. “That has created chaos.” He called on Clinton to change her foreign policy priorities because her record was “just terrible”.
Both Clinton and Trump are trying to convince voters that they would deal decisively with ISIS and the Syrian crisis as commander-in-chief but America’s top spy warns that there are no quick fixes.
“All our policymakers have are bad choices,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. He said the United States should be prepared for a long period of instability and violence in dealing with terror groups such as ISIS or the former Jabhat al-Nusra, which used to be considered al- Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
Although Clinton and Trump broadly agree that the United States should do more to defeat ISIS, they differ sharply on the refugee crisis sparked by the Syrian conflict. Clinton wants the United States to accept 65,000 more Syrian refugees, a small number compared to the 2.7 million hosted by Turkey or the hundreds of thousands who have migrated to EU countries.
Trump opposes taking in more Syrian refugees, saying in his convention acceptance speech that “there’s no way to screen these refugees in order to find out who they are or where they come from”. Trump’s argument is contested by migration experts, who say that there is a rigorous screening process in place.