Two more debates between the Republican Party’s presidential debates have taken place since attention shifted from Ukraine to Syria.
In the fourth debate, the Republican candidates doubled down on their stances regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. Donald Trump again expressed that he would be friends with President Putin, Senator Marco Rubio was adamant once more to call Putin a gangster, and fiery HP CEO Carly Fiorina proposed for a large buildup of arms in Central and Eastern Europe, stressing that Putin was not worth talking to. Senator Rand Paul, who later got into a spat with Senator Rubio about the conservative merits of isolationism, proposed caution and criticized Fiorina for her assertion that Putin should not be talked to.
But how effective would these policies be?
Donald Trump delved in to slightly further detail about why and how he’d enjoy a good relationship with Putin. Apparently the two met on the in-depth news program 60 Minutes and hit it off. While Mr. Trump brought up an important point when he criticized the European Union for not acting more proactively towards the aggressive behavior of the Kremlin (after all, Ukraine and Russia are European soil and the people of the United States often wonder why Washington has to get involved in conflicts in Europe’s backyard), he again did not provide much concrete detail as to how he and Putin would be friends other than that. However, it looked like he wanted to shift attention from his “pro-Putin position” to other foreign policy issues.
Mr. Trump took a much more aggressive stance on fighting Islamic State in Syria, something the Kremlin claims to be doing, though their urgency has been called into question. In a rally in Iowa shortly after the debate, Trump angrily took no prisoners, saying he’d “bomb the (expletive) out of” ISIS and “take the oil” in hopes that confiscating the natural resources of Syria and Iraq that it would weaken ISIS.
Airstrikes from the United States are already hitting Islamic State with some success, at least in Iraq. In Iraq, where the conflict is much less complicated as Iraqi forces from Baghdad and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance towards ISIS strongholds like Fallujah and Mosul. Small independent militias also exist, but they are fighting nearly exclusively with the Iraqi forces. As strange as this sounds, Iraq has shown considerable muscle after their initial running from ISIS earned them international ridicule and gave ISIS a powerful propaganda tool. The Iraqi forces are also cooperating with the Kurdish Peshmerga, a former enemy.
Syria’s conflict is much more complicated than Iraq’s. A loose and disjointed coalition called the Free Syrian Army is fighting Assad, as are smaller terrorist groups like Al-Nusra, which are also fighting the FSA. To the north, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (also known as the YPG) are busy carving out Kurdish majority areas along the northern border for themselves in hopes for an autonomous country within Syria once the war ends. Despite Trump’s claim, however, Syria isn’t exactly the oil powerhouse that Iraq is, and while cutting off oil supplies would likely help weaken Islamic State, defeating them is not that simple.
The no-fly zone over Syria proposed by some candidates may not have been the worst idea in theory, but the risk of this now that Russia is directly involved in fighting forces opposed to Assad is astronomical. Senator Paul stressed this to the chagrin of some of the more hawkish Republican candidates. The chance of direct war breaking out should the United States shoot down a Russian plane is not a risk worth taking. A Paul presidency would be more cautious, and would likely see factions become more pronounced as hawks in the party clash with the more isolation-friendly members. The overall opposition to Putin’s foreign policy in both Ukraine and Syria would largely stay intact, however. Gov. Kasich, however argued with him, saying that no-fly zone should be established at least in the parts of the country that are under control of US-backed forces. He continued, saying “Russia’s recent military build-up and intervention in Syria are neither intended to defeat ISIS nor to relieve the suffering of Syrian refugees. Mr. Putin’s real goals are quite different: to take military action to rescue Assad’s criminal government from its death and to strengthen Russia’s strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is unacceptable and must stop.”
Giving lethal aid to Ukraine is supported almost unanimously by the Republican Party candidates but now that the conflict has effectively frozen over like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and Abkhazia/South Ossetia, the likelihood of that happening might not be quite as likely as it would have been earlier. Military assistance will likely still flow to the Ukrainian Armed Forces but it looks like the possibility of the war starting in earnest a second time is not in the interest of either Kyiv or Moscow. Kyiv does not have the capability and the Kremlin does not want to further aggravate its isolated position after invading Ukraine in the first place.
Perhaps the most aggressive of the Republicans’ candidates on foreign policy, Carly Fiorina, seems to endorse a large military buildup in Central and Eastern Europe. This would further drive our two countries apart and while the indignant frustration with the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior is valid, matching the aggression of a powerful nation the United States has a long historical rivalry with is still a very risky move. It was only thirty years ago that the United States and Soviet Union were throwing billions upon billions of dollars (roubles) at an arms race that involved multiple proxy wars, few of which ended well. Pro-Kremlin Russians like to say they are “defending their interests” in Ukraine and Syria from the encroachment of the United States and European Union. Despite the claims of Russian state media, the United States didn’t engineer the revolution in Ukraine. Aggression could validate the often-outlandish statements of Kremlin-run media and drive Russians to rally behind Putin and nationalist anti-American rhetoric even more than they already have. With the Ukraine conflict calming to a seeming stalemate, there is a risk in looking like the aggressor even though it is in response to previous aggression. One only needs to look towards Israel and Palestine to see that a tit-for-tat offensive is not always the best policy even when the reasons behind hold truth.
Going farther into Syria is a risk for the United States and probably would not find much popular support. But in terms of tangible hardship, Russia may be more at risk than the United States. The economy has been stagnant for over five years and sanctions still sting. Both countries have been through the pain and horror of a war that perhaps wasn’t ours to fight. One could argue to some extent that the United States has done it twice, once in Vietnam and once in Iraq. Russia lost too many brave sons fighting for an ideology in Afghanistan. The surrogate wars of the Cold War era rarely, if ever, yielded positive results.