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What next for the US in Syria: The known versus the unknown

What next for the US in Syria: The known versus the unknown

This week the Lowy Institute published a new Analysis by Thomas Wright: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Crisis of US Foreign Policy. In this, Wright drills down into Donald Trump's world view and how the world might react to a Trump presidency. Importantly, given the GOP candidate's slide in the polls is expected to continue this week, Wright also explores the nature of Hillary Clinton's internationalism and the 'subtle but significant shift in emphasis' that could play out under a Clinton presidency as compared to Barack Obama.

In particular, he discusses the notion of geopolitical regionalism:

Over the past few years, there has been an emerging critique of Obama’s foreign policy from among some Democrats that has not been articulated by Clinton but is consistent with her track record. This view - what might be termed ‘geopolitical regionalism’ expresses alarm at the deterioration of order in the Middle East and Europe ... Geopolitical regionalism would have the United States return to a traditional understanding of US interests and the liberal international order as being rooted in stable regional security orders. This would mean the United States would do more to address disorder at the regional level.

Wright goes on to note:

One critique of President Obama’s foreign policy approach is that he underestimates the risk that regional disorder poses to US interests. Consider the Middle East. Obama believes that disorder in the Middle East can be contained so it does not threaten core US interests. However, over the past four years, the war in Syria has grown immeasurably worse, as has the situation in Libya.

Given the risk that the situation could get much worse, many Democratic leaning foreign policy experts argue that the United States should re-engage with the Middle East with a view to stabilising the region

Yesterday we had a small taste of how that might play out when Clinton spoke on Syria in the second debate. She said:

Russia hasn't paid any attention to ISIS. They're interested in keeping Assad in power. So I, when I was secretary of state, advocated and I advocate today a no-fly zone and safe zones. We need some leverage with the Russians, because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them. And we have to work more closely with our partners and allies on the ground.

... I want to emphasize that what is at stake here is the ambitions and the aggressiveness of Russia. Russia has decided that it's all in, in Syria. And they've also decided who they want to see become president of the United States, too, and it's not me. I've stood up to Russia. I've taken on Putin and others, and I would do that as president.

Policy and military experts are far from convinced a no-fly zone (NFZ) would be effective. [fold]

On The Interpreter last week, the Lowy Institute research fellow (and former army officer) Rodger Shanahan noted Russia would most certainly challenge the legality of an NFZ, and there is no shortage of other potential problems. Shanahan wrote:

What if the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies decide that they will stop flying but use large numbers of artillery and multi-launch rocket systems against insurgents operating among civilian populations? Will US (and possibly Australian) aircraft be comfortable flying at 20,000 feet protecting an illegal NFZ while below them they see towns pummelled by ground-based indirect fire assets? The NFZ would look pretty ineffectual then. Conversely, how would the coalition guarantee that jihadis aren’t able to take advantage of the air cover that an NFZ provides to rest, train and plan, safe from air attack?

In this podcast interview with David Axelrod, White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes (who worked with Clinton as Secretary of State) explains why the Obama administration has ruled out an NFZ:

If you had an area of geography in Syria where planes couldn't fly over it, people would still be killing each other on the ground. ISIL doesn't have planes, so that doesn't solve the ISIL problem. They would still be able to massacre people on the ground. And we would have to devote an enormous amount of our resources -- which are currently devoted to finding ISIL and killing them wherever they are -- to maintaining this no-fly zone. So it's just not a good use of resources.

But while many disagree on the effectiveness of the likely strategy, we can at least predict how a Clinton administration would proceed. The same cannot be said of the Trump/Pence ticket. Less than a month out from the election, the GOP nominees for president and vice president aren't even on the same page when it comes to using American ground forces in Syria. Pence thinks this would be a good idea, Trump disagrees.

Pretty much all we can be certain of about Trump is the need to be uncertain. In his Lowy Analysis, Wright sets out three elements to understanding Trump's worldview beginning with his core beliefs. These are: Trump's opposition to alliances; his support for a mercantilist international world order; and his fondness for authoritarian leaders. While it is difficult to predict how these would play out, Wright is rock solid sure that a 'Trump administration would be an enormous shock to world politics'.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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