One issue the candidates should be talking about

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Presidential candidates sidestepping question of what to do about Syria carnage
  • War is an extraordinarily complicated issue without easy answers, she says

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)U.S. presidential candidates are largely sidestepping one of the biggest moral questions of our time: What should America do about the carnage in Syria?

The war in Syria has already killed more than 250,000 people, and has unleashed the greatest tide of refugees since the end of World War II. True, the news that world powers have agreed to a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria offers the faintest glimmer of hope. But this is more likely to turn into a mirage, and it seems possible that the one-week delay before the plan goes into effect could actually make this one of the deadliest weeks of a conflict that is a historic humanitarian catastrophe.
Thousands of Syrians are slowly starving, living under sieges imposed by their own government and allied militias. These conditions have prompted more than 4 million to leave the country, while more than 7 million more have been displaced within Syria. The depth of suffering is almost beyond measure. In the first six weeks of 2016, more than 75,000 crossed the Mediterranean to Greece despite the winter temperatures. And on top of this, the intensifying attacks on Aleppo are pushing tens of thousands more to flee.
    The trouble now is that there is nowhere for them to go. Turkey has shut the border, placing even greater pressure not just on Turkey's border, but on Europe and the rest of the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin must be getting some tragic satisfaction from seeing what this crisis is doing to his foes in the West as he helps the Syrian dictator hold on to power, years after President Barack Obama warned that "Assad must go."
    Surely this ongoing tragedy is something all those wanting to be the next president of the United States should be talking about with voters. But are they? So far, not so much.
    The trouble is that the Syrian war is an extraordinarily complicated issue without easy answers. It poses important strategic questions for the United States, particularly as Russia's intervention has turned the tide of battle, strengthened Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran, and left Washington's strategy in tatters.
    Yet everyone -- including the candidates -- prefers to talk about the brutal terrorists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But while that is certainly an important (and related) discussion, Assad and his allies are killing far more people, and are at the very heart of the crisis in the region.
    So, what kind of discussion are we getting about this moral question of the highest order? Certainly not an intelligent or even honest one. Instead what we are hearing is political, superficial posturing that avoids the underlying issues.
    On the Republican side, leading candidates seem to be trying to out-macho each other, with claims that sound like the bluster you would expect of teenage boys. On the challenge of ISIS, Donald Trump said he would "bomb the sh** out of them!" He paused briefly for wild applause, and continued: "I would just bomb those suckers. I'll blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left. And then I'll take the oil." (Even conservative critics noted that this, along with some other Trump proposals, would amount to war crimes).
    Of course, "blowing up" a region would prompt an even greater exodus of refugees -- men, women and children who would presumably find no home in the United States under a Trump administration as he has vowed to ban Muslims from entering the country.
    Unfortunately, Trump is not alone. His main Republican rival, Ted Cruz, also proposes violating international law. He wants to "carpet bomb" ISIS strongholds, despite numerous military strategists having said would amount to a violation of the laws of war. (And it would of course do nothing to stop Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah's killing machine).
    On the Democratic side, the lack of introspection on the tough choices the United States is facing is just as disheartening. Bernie Sanders, whose strong performance has made Hillary Clinton rush to the left, has offered a favorite cliché, to the cheers of his supporters. America, he says, "cannot and should not be the policeman of the world." (An argument echoed by Republican John Kasich).
    Both Sanders and Clinton adamantly reject the idea of "boots on the ground," although Clinton supports the Obama policy of using special operations forces, whose boots somehow don't seem to count when someone is trying to downplay U.S. military involvement. She actually had the right plan -- including early on calling for the arming of Syrian rebels -- years ago, but we probably won't hear about that unless and until she runs against a Republican.
    The most perplexing part of the Democrats' approach to Syria is that the party, now dousing itself in "progressivism," sees itself as the one that cares about the well-being of all people.
    Progressives are the ones that say they believe the state should ensure dignity and security for all. For some reason, that laudable philosophy appears incompatible with caring about the quality of life of desperate people beyond America's shores.
    This is not to say that Democrats -- or Republicans for that matter -- should advocate rushing to war in Syria, nor opening the door to millions of refugees. These problems are daunting, and do not have a quick and easy fix.
    But they are extremely important challenges, ones that presidential candidates should be discussing openly with voters. With that in mind, debate moderators should probe the candidates on what America should do when millions of people are fleeing, when hundreds of thousands are being killed.
    They should ask what the U.S. should do when Russia is exacerbating a crisis tearing apart America's European allies. One that is exposing divisions as Turkey, a NATO member, demands that the U.S. betray the Kurds, who are helping in the fight. And one being inflamed by Iran's protection of a vicious dictator slaughtering his people, starving them to death.
    Do we, as human beings, have a responsibility to help? It is a question that goes to the heart of what America stands for in the world. And the time to talk about it is now.
    This article was updated to take into account news of the ceasefire announced Thursday.