Clinton, Trump: Time for clarity on your Syria policy

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Syria is the most urgent foreign policy issue facing next US president
  • Both candidates' positions have left more questions than answers, Ghitis writes

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 hers.

(CNN)When the next president of the United States sits down in the Oval Office, she or he will confront the most urgent item on America's -- and the world's -- foreign policy agenda: what to do about the crisis in Syria. Considering how crucial that issue is, you would think that by now we would know where the candidates stand. Yet after Tuesday's vice presidential debate, we are left with an even murkier picture than before.

Frida Ghitis
Donald Trump's position is a headache-inducing mess. On Tuesday, his running mate, Mike Pence, proposed policies that have little in common with the Republican nominee. In fact, much of what he said about foreign policy seemed to be arguing -- successfully -- against Trump's positions.
    On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton's views about Syria also require more information. It's not a matter of revealing your strategy, which is the excuse Trump trots out for not explaining his secret plan. Instead, it's about explaining to American voters what risks you would be willing to take, and what you expect to achieve.
    For the Clinton camp, the Syria question poses a unique political challenge. Clinton is widely seen to have disagreed with President Barack Obama's policy on Syria, which many people (me included) believe has been an abject failure. But she is afraid to alienate the Democratic base, and in particular Bernie Sanders' supporters, by highlighting the fact that she and others in the administration advocated a tougher approach from the one Obama chose. In debates with Sanders she tried to thread the needle, proposing some changes but expressing hope that Secretary of State John Kerry's diplomatic effort would prove effective. The truth is, though, that effort has so far failed.
    Why should Syria matter to those casting their ballots in just over a month's time?
    For a start, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed. That alone makes it an international emergency, one that has been exacerbated by the fact that Russia is giving muscular military backing to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is responsible for the vast majority of the deaths. As a result, Vladimir Putin's forces have helped turn Syria into ground zero in the escalating tensions between the United States and Russia even as the war has become the epicenter of extremist jihadism. Meanwhile, Syria is at the core of the refugee crisis, which has created a humanitarian crisis that has helped transform the political landscape in Europe.
    That's why, in a nutshell, Syria matters. And it should be more than enough to push questions about Syria to the forefront of the presidential debates. But even when the issue has been raised, as it was on Tuesday, the result has been to leave more questions than answers.
    It was startling, for example, to hear Pence describe a Syria policy so sharply at odds with what Trump has been outlining. Until now, Trump's campaign has been extraordinarily vague on Syria policy, talking mostly about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and how he would "knock the hell" out of them.
    Regarding Assad, Trump's musings suggest a hands-off approach. He has previously indicated he would be satisfied with leaving the Syrian dictator in place. Indeed, in 2013, when Assad used chemical weapons and Obama was pondering intervention, Trump tweeted that attacking Syria would be a "stupid move." And just a few months ago, he criticized Obama for doing too much in Syria. "I would have stayed out of Syria," he said, "and wouldn't have fought so much ... against Assad."
    All the while, Trump has been basking in the glow of mutual admiration with Assad-backer Putin. Pence may deny this, but Americans have seen for themselves how Trump has for months been praising the Russian leader.
    That's why it came as quite a shock to hear Pence argue that the United States needs to stand up to Russia even if that requires using military force. "The provocations by Russia," Pence said, "need to be met with American strength." On the ongoing attacks in Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces, Pence contended that if Russia's involvement continues "in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime."
    Trump took credit for Pence's strong performance in the debate. But, when it came to Syria and Russia, Pence certainly didn't defend Trump's policy. With that in mind, before voters allow Trump to benefit from Pence's ideas, they should demand to know if he stands by his own statements or those of his running mate. When reporters asked Trump's deputy campaign manager David Bossie if Trump supported military force against Assad, he said he didn't know. The war in Syria could become America's next war. This is no minor issue for a top campaign official to be confused about.
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    Clinton, for her part, has so far called for giving more support to moderate opposition forces, removing Assad through diplomatic means, and stopping the Assad regime's mass killing of civilians. How she would achieve that, though, is not altogether clear.
    One idea that all sides appear to support is the establishment of safe-zones for civilians inside Syria. Pence and Kaine backed it on Tuesday, and so has Clinton. Even Trump has proclaimed that he would "Build a big beautiful safe zone," explaining that he would "take a big swatch of land" in Syria, "which believe me, you get for the right price."
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    But the big, beautiful safe zone is not without risk. And here's a question both Trump and Clinton need to answer: If the United States and its allies establish an area inside Syria where civilians are protected, what will they do if Russian airplanes decide to bomb the area? Would the United States really be willing to shoot down a Russian plane to protect Syrians in a no-fly zone created by America and its allies?
    The truth about Syria is that there are no easy answers, and that is why both candidates would rather not talk about the issue. Every possible solution carries with it risks. And, as we have seen, doing nothing, or doing too little, is also a highly risky proposition.
    But the voters cannot let them get away with dodging the issue. Instead, they should demand that before the next woman or man starts tackling America's to-do list from the Oval Office, that voters hear exactly what they are planning to do.