In the first of a two-part series, non-resident associate Aron Lund examines the policies toward Syria of the two main contenders for the presidency of the United States, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

On November 8, the most powerful nation on earth goes to the polls to elect a successor to President Barack Obama. In what must surely be the most tense and aggressive race in modern U.S. history, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, faces Donald Trump, an unconventional tycoon-turned-politician running on the Republican ticket.

Syria has played a small role in the campaign, even though the next president will be faced with hard choices over whether to draw down, maintain, or escalate U.S. support for the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.

“Syria is just not resonating as a campaign issue at all,” says Perry Cammack, a Carnegie Endowment associate who until last year worked on Syria as a staffer for Secretary of State John Kerry. “People care about the threat from the Islamic State. Polling shows that it is far and away the number one priority in foreign policy, nothing else comes close. But in campaign rhetoric and in the public eye, this is different from discussing Syria, Aleppo, or the civil war there.”

Nevertheless, the election result will matter enormously to Syrians. Since summer, I have spoken to U.S. policy experts and former White House, State Department, and Pentagon officials to get a sense of how the two candidates have approached the issue. Though Clinton is more likely to be the winner in November, let us start by taking a closer look at the Syria policies of her Republican opponent.

Thought very little about Syria

Though Donald Trump has broached the issue several times, he has never laid out a clear policy for Syria. His statements have often been vague and sometimes contradictory, and it is abundantly clear that he has thought and learned very little about Syria. Rather, his main interest in the Syrian war has been to wield it as a stick with which to beat Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state, and to highlight his opposition to resettling Muslim refugees in the United States.

Harsh attacks on Islam, foreigners, and refugees helped Trump win the Republican primaries, but they have also left him atop a political base with a very eccentric threat perception. According to a Pew poll last May, an astounding 85 percent of his supporters in the primaries viewed Syrian and Iraqi refugees as a “major threat,” whereas only 48 percent of registered Republican voters believed that similar risks could stem from tension with Russia, a country with a nuclear arsenal large enough to wipe the United States off the map. 

Syria itself has taken a backseat to these issues, but Trump has repeatedly signaled discomfort with U.S. involvement in the war, which he says is Clinton’s doing. “Taken at his word—a risky proposition—Trump might well stand back from Syria and simply impede any further entry of Syrian refugees,” said Robert S. Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an online interview in late August.

A Russian-Backed Isolationist

Judging by Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the world outside the United States consists largely of terrorists and refugees, most of whom are also terrorists. Other countries fall into a few distinct categories: dangerous competitors (China, Japan); ungrateful freeloaders (all manners of Europeans); countries that Clinton and Obama have betrayed (Israel); countries that have played Clinton and Obama for fools (Iran); and Russia. Since 2015, Trump has increasingly come under scrutiny over his public praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Russian leader seems quite fond of him, too. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Russian intelligence agencies have conducted an aggressive campaign of data theft and propaganda aimed at helping Trump become president.

It’s not difficult to see why Russia would prefer Trump over Clinton, even apart from his fascination with Putin and his lukewarm attitude toward NATO. A common theme of his campaign is that the United States needs to shrink its role on the international stage and avoid intractable conflicts in the Middle East. “I don’t think we should be nation-building anymore,” Trump told the Washington Post last March. “I think it’s proven not to work, and we have a different country than we did then. We have $19 trillion in debt. We’re sitting, probably, on a bubble. And it’s a bubble that if it breaks, it’s going to be very nasty. I just think we have to rebuild our country.”

A very substantial number of American voters would agree. According to a Pew poll conducted last May, 41 percent of Americans said that the United States was doing too much to solve problems outside its borders, compared to only 27 percent who were eager to see increased engagement abroad.

Supporters of less engagement have been poorly represented in past elections. They certainly played a role in securing the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008, but, once in office, both men sank into the Middle Eastern quicksand anyway. Trump has voiced an even more full-throated support for American isolationism, which now seems to be one of his most genuinely popular positions. While he hasn’t embraced the term, he has no objection to the concept. “Not isolationist, but I am America First,” he said last March. “I like the expression.”

Saying No to Regime Change

In keeping with this sentiment, Trump has declared himself an opponent of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Libya (though he appears to have supported both wars when they began). He approaches Syria in the same manner, which has led him to take a more lenient line on Assad than either Obama or Clinton. The Trump campaign website describes Syria as having been “under control” before the Obama administration took office, whereas, “under Secretary Clinton, regime change in Syria […] destabilized the world.”

“Unlike my opponent,” he said in a speech in September, “my foreign policy will emphasize diplomacy, not destruction.”

Hillary Clinton’s legacy in Iraq, Libya, and Syria has produced only turmoil and suffering. Her destructive policies have displaced millions of people, then she has invited the refugees into the West with no plan to screen them. […] Sometimes it has seemed like there wasn’t a country in the Middle East that Hillary Clinton didn’t want to invade, intervene or topple. She is trigger-happy and unstable when it comes to war.

Trump has never explicitly voiced support for the Syrian president or argued that he should actively be kept in power, but has made it clear that he thinks U.S. efforts to overthrow Assad are misguided. “I would have stayed out of Syria and I wouldn't have fought so much against Assad,” he said last May, describing this as a costly distraction from the U.S. war on the self-declared Islamic State, also known as ISIS:

We have Iran and we have Russia totally on the side of Assad. That's not the reason I stay out necessarily, but certainly it’s a complicating factor. But we have them totally on the side of Assad. We have to knock the hell out of ISIS, and if we’re going after Assad and ISIS while they're fighting each other, people are going to say, what the hell are we doing?

Trump has criticized the Obama administration’s funding, arming, and training of Syrian rebels, warning that a victorious Syrian opposition may turn out to be worse for American interests than Assad. He stuck by this view in the most recent presidential debate on October 9, when he again attacked Clinton’s policy in Syria:

Now, she talks tough against Putin. And against Assad. She talks in favor of the rebels. She doesn’t even know who the rebels are. Every time we take rebels, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else, we are arming people. You know what happens? They end up being worse than the people. Look what she did in Libya with Gaddafi. Gaddafi is out, it’s a mess.

At the same time, Trump has sought to court nationalist and military support, promising to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State and complaining that Kurdish allies of the United States in Syria aren’t given enough support. He has also toyed with the idea of military involvement in Syria, in the form of a “safe zone” on Syrian territory. 

A safe zone for internally displaced Syrians has long been a demand of the Syrian opposition and its supporters, many of whom view this as the prelude to a U.S. intervention against Assad. But Trump portrays his safe zone as little more than a pen into which to herd refugees, so that they do not end up in the United States or Europe. The idea that Assad or Putin would seek to prevent foreign governments from controlling Syrian territory does not even seem to have occurred to him, and, in the manner of his proposed border wall with Mexico, he has waved away all practical problems by saying that the Arab Gulf states can pay the bills and provide the troops. “In Syria, take a big [swath] of land, which believe me, you get for the right price, okay? You take a big [swath] and you don’t destroy all of Europe,” he said in November 2015, at the height of the European migration crisis. “What I like is build a safe zone, it’s here, build a big beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier.”

“Donald Trump has vaguely indicated a desire to bomb the Islamic State while leaving the balance of Syria to Russia and its partners,” wrote Fredric C. Hof in an email exchange earlier this year. A former Syria adviser to Clinton during her years as secretary of state, Hof is now a director at the Atlantic Council. “He seems predisposed to liquidating American involvement in complex operations overseas. It remains to be seen, however, how a Trump administration would be staffed in terms of senior officials advising the president.” Hof suggests that if Trump were to win the election and then managed to pull seasoned Republican foreign policy figures into his administration, his policies would likely tilt in a more opposition-friendly direction, critical of Iran and of Russia.

Certain members of the Trump team are already pushing in this direction, though they have little to show for their efforts so far. One prominent advisor to the Trump campaign, the former Republican congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia, is in fact a paid lobbyist for the Syrian opposition. Trump’s list of foreign policy advisors also includes Walid Phares, a controversial Fox News commentator and former member of the Lebanese Forces militia, who regularly castigates the White House for not having intervened early enough in Syria. Phares recently attacked Obama for not having “finished off” Assad in 2011, 2012, or 2013. However, Trump seems only vaguely familiar with the views of his ostensible adviser and at one point even appeared to believe that Phares, a lifelong Christian activist, was a Muslim.

On Syria, like on all other issues, Trump seems to make up his mind as he goes along. Advisers and experts may be used to bolster his arguments, but whenever he disagrees with their views, they are simply ignored or brusquely brushed aside. 

Trump and Pence Disagree

At no time was this truer than on October 4, when Indiana governor Mike Pence squared off against his Democratic rival Tim Kaine, a senator from Virginia, in the first vice-presidential debate. Kaine is an avowed supporter of imposing a no-fly zone over Syria and a strong critic of the Trump-Pence ticket’s alleged ties to Russia. However, if he had hoped for a duel on these grounds, he was disappointed. 

Instead of defending Trump’s stated views on Syria and Russia, Pence reimagined them as a forward-leaning pro-intervention policy. He twice referred to Putin as “the small and bullying leader of Russia” and said that in Syria, “the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength.” He then added that if Moscow continued to support the “barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo,” the United States “should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime.” Pence also argued that a safe zone would have to be enforced by U.S. aircraft. 

After the debate, Pence continued to say that both he and Trump wanted the U.S. military involved in establishing the Syrian safe zone. Deputy campaign manager David Bossie was at a loss when asked how Trump’s and Pence’s views could be reconciled. “You know, I’m going to have to, uh, to talk to Mr. Trump about that,” Bossie stuttered, according to the Daily Beast. “I, I, I don’t know the answer.”

Trump, however, did know the answer. In the October 9 presidential debate, he was asked about Pence’s comments. “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree,” Trump snapped.

On Syria, as on all things, the Trump campaign has been a one-man show. The candidate’s own manifest lack of interest in foreign policy seems to have prevented the formulation of a clear strategy, and not even his closest associates seem to be sure of what goals a Trump White House would pursue in Syria, beyond attacking the Islamic State and stopping refugees. Yet, taken together, Trump’s strong anti-interventionist streak, his conciliatory view of Putin’s Russia, and his distrust of any policies espoused by Obama or Clinton indicate that a Republican victory in November could be a devastating blow to the Syrian opposition. That’s unless, of course, Trump suddenly changes his mind again.