Neither of the presidential campaigns knows what their Syria policies actually mean.
During Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, there was a brief exchange between the moderator and candidates that perfectly captured the muddled confusion over potential new U.S.-led military missions in Syria. It showcased the type of slippery and imprecise rhetoric that could easily result in the United States entering a war the public opposes.
Halfway through the debate, moderator Elaine Quijano asked Gov. Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Kaine about the war there. “250,000 people, 100,000 of them children, are under siege in Aleppo, Syria. Bunker buster bombs, cluster munitions, and incendiary weapons are being dropped on them by Russian and Syrian militaries. Does the U.S. have a responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass casualties on this scale?”
Pence first made the case for significantly expanding the number of troops in the U.S. military, which was a puzzling policy suggestion, given that Donald Trump does not endorse any U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. He then added, “We have got to begin to lean into this with strong, broad-shouldered American leadership.”
What exactly did Pence have in mind? “What America ought to do right now is immediately establish safe zones so that vulnerable families with children can move out of those areas, work with our Arab partners real-time, right now to make that happen.” He does not say where within Syria these zones would be immediately established, who exactly would defend the lines of demarcation from aggressors, who are the Arab partners, or how this unnamed ground force would assure that the zones are not used by combatants.
Kaine responded by connecting Trump with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but eventually noted, “I said about Aleppo, we do agree [that] the notion is we have to create a humanitarian zone in northern Syria.”
In agreeing with Pence, Kaine conflated the governor’s proposal for a safe zone with his own proposal for a humanitarian zone. Casual listeners would be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t any difference. But for the candidates, and the campaigns they represent, this constitutes a sloppiness on military policy for which there is no good excuse over five years into the Syrian civil war, and just 34 days before the election.
There is no single definition of “safe zone” in U.S. military doctrine, or in U.N. peacekeeping doctrine. However, the type of area Pence seemed to be trying to describe is most closely related to what the Pentagon calls a demilitarized zone: “a defined area in which the stationing or concentrating of military forces, or the retention or establishment of military installations of any description, is prohibited.” Note, such a zone, by definition, could not include members of the armed opposition.
A humanitarian zone of the sort Kaine was referring to, by contrast, is most often associated with humanitarian corridors, which are restricted routes of travel or defined areas where humanitarian groups can operate without interference, to provide aid to noncombatants.
To confuse things even further, Quijano next stated: “Gov. Pence, you had mentioned a no-fly zone” and asked how he would keep this “safe zone” safe. Well, Pence never did mention a no-fly zone, which, for its part, is also not defined in U.N. or U.S. military doctrine, but which typically means a specific geographic area over which specific aerial military operations are prohibited. Pence never replied directly; instead he remarked how the Obama administration’s foreign policy “has awakened a Russian aggression.”
Undaunted, Quijano tried again: “Exactly how would those safe zones work?” Pence replied: “The safe zones would have to be … there’s already a framework for this that’s been recognized by the international community. The United States of America needs to be prepared to work with our allies in the region to create a route for safe passage, and then to protect people in those areas, including with a no-fly zone.”
Let’s unpack this observation briefly. The only “international community” that can recognize such an intervention into another country is the U.N. Security Council, which approved just such a resolution endorsing a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, acting under Chapter 8 of the Charter of the United Nations. Given Russia’s ability to veto such a resolution as a permanent member of the Security Council, the intervention that Pence is proposing will almost certainly not be “recognized.”
A “route for safe passage” to “protect people in those areas” implies that noncombatants would be protected only when en route to somewhere, apparently in this case to a safe zone, but perhaps elsewhere, such as to border checkpoints. There is no specification about where exactly those routes would be, or, again, who — among the “others in the region” — would choose to enforce such route security, or how they would do it. This mission would seem to have to include an extensive commitment of dismounted infantry troops, and ground mobility and air support to escort convoys of noncombatants and humanitarian vehicles. Of course, there would also need to be militaries willing to impose and enforce a no-fly zone over the routes themselves or over the geographically unidentified protected areas. Pence offered precisely zero details on any of these matters.
Nor were the vice presidential candidates willing to address the two most important and consequential questions pertaining to the military missions they were describing: Will the enforcement of the safe, humanitarian, or no-fly zones include attacking Russian military assets that threaten or violate those excluded areas? And, will the enforcement of those zones include attacking armed opposition members that threaten or violate those excluded areas? How the candidates answer these questions would reveal whether they are serious about protecting all civilians from all forms of lethality, whether they support escalating hostilities between the U.S. and Russian militaries within Syria, or whether they tacitly support providing military support on behalf of certain armed opposition members committed to toppling the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Of course, Tuesday night’s comments need to be understood in the context of the policies described during the broader campaign. But this hardly absolves them. Hillary Clinton has stated on multiple occasions that she supported variously a “no-fly zone” and a “safe zone,” and noted that it “gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia” and “extra leverage that I’m looking for in the diplomatic pursuits with Russia,” but has provided no further details. Trump, for his part, has never said he supports a “no-fly zone,” declaring of one last October: “I don’t think so. I think what I want to do is I want to sit back … and I want to see what happens.” So if Pence was actually speaking for his running mate, he announced a new policy of the Trump campaign at the debate. Previously, Trump had only said he endorsed a “safe zone for people … so that they could … go back to where they came from.”
People running to serve as commander in chief, or even commander in chief in-waiting, should not be allowed by debate moderators or interviewers to toss out distinct military missions offhandedly without being pressed for specifics on how they would be implemented. A humanitarian zone is not a safe zone, which is not a no-fly zone. Each requires different levels of military commitment, different basing and overflight rights, different degrees of logistics and analytical support, and ultimately would affect the behavior of the combatants in the Syrian civil war differently.
Serious contenders for the highest office in the United States, who seek control over the U.S. military, should not use these military missions interchangeably and without regard for their likely costs and consequences. And if they do, the media should help the American public, which will be obliged to carry out whatever mission the future commander in chief eventually orders, to call them out on it.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images