Democrats mull options for the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship over Syria

On Saturday night, the Democratic Party hosted its second presidential debate. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have fielded a small amount of candidates. Five candidates took the stage at the first debate; three were present at the second. 

Frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started the conversation in the first debate on a very strange foot. When asked “Secretary Clinton, Russia, they’re challenging the U.S. in Syria. According to U.S. intelligence, they’ve lied about who they’re bombing. You spearheaded the reset with Russia. Did you underestimate the Russians, and as president, what would your response to Vladimir Putin be right now in Syria?”, She spoke about how much the United States accomplished when Dimitri Medvedev was president between 2008 and 2012, stressing the jointly agreed nuclear arms deal, sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, and increased supplies to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

She eventually went on to admit things had changed under Putin but complimented the Obama Administration for standing firm against Putin. “I applaud the administration because they are engaged in talks right now with the Russians to make it clear that they’ve got to be part of the solution to try to end that bloody conflict [in Syria].”

Clinton’s touting of her accomplishments under Medvedev’s administration is peculiar. It’s true there were no major hiccups in the relationship between the United States and Russia during Medvedev’s presidency save for the War in South Ossetia, but that ended after two weeks and quickly dropped off the international radar because it ended so quickly. It also took place when the Bush Administration was still in power-Clinton was not yet Secretary of State. Clinton also benefited from an administration that happened to be much less popular in Russia than the current Putin Administration. Between 2011 and 2012, Russia saw considerable protests against the Putin-Medvedev tandem of leadership and Putin’s approval rating, now soaring in the low 90s because of the tide of nationalism since the Ukraine conflict broke out, was stuck in the 40s when Clinton was Secretary of State. While Clinton’s claims were not untrue, they came across as odd considering how much things had changed since she left her post as Secretary of State and she failed to bring up specifics when she did allude to the present situation.

Farther to the left, Senator Bernie Sanders claimed Putin “…is already regretting what he did in Crimea and what he is doing in the Ukraine.  I think he is regretting the decline of his economy.  And I think what he is trying to do now is save some face.  But I think when Russians get killed in Syria and when he gets bogged down, I think the Russian people are going to give him a message that maybe they should come home, maybe they should start working with the United States to rectify the situation now.”

Sanders’ claim that President Putin “regrets” what has happened in Crimea and Ukraine is probably untrue when Russian state media is still trumpeting the return of the Crimean peninsula to its rightful owner and embracing the narrative of fighting “fascists” in the Donbas. It has also loudly decried the United States’ lack of results in fighting the Islamic State and ridiculed the idea of America supporting the “moderate rebels” in Syria’s civil war, a criticism that is not entirely without merit. Russia’s intervention in Syria is also relatively limited-airstrikes have taken place, but very few casualties have been reported. Russia’s intervention into Syria is not comparable to the invasion of Afghanistan that the Soviet Union came to deeply regret. If it escalates, that could become a more apt comparison considering the complex nature of the Syrian Civil War, but it’s not clear yet whether that will happen.

Since that first debate, candidates Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee have dropped out.

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In the second debate, Bernie Sanders and Hillary wasted no time in condemning the Islamic State and the barbaric attacks that happened in Paris. Sanders told the audience that the United States would defeat ISIS «together, leading the world».

Clinton seemed to subtly rebuke Sanders by telling the audience that this election was not just for the presidency, but the position of Commander-in-Chief. Clinton claimed she would be outlining what she’d do to cooperate with Europe to defeat ISIS. She stressed the US’s role in training and supplying the Iraqis as well as the Kurds, but that it «was not an American fight».

On Syria, Secretary Clinton decried the Kremlin’s support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, claiming Russia as well as Iran was fighting Assad’s battles. “This is an incredibly complicated region of the world. It’s become more complicated. And many of the fights that are going on are not ones that the United States has either started or have a role in.”

When Clinton was asked whether the Obama Administration underestimated ISIS, she waffled and deferred blame back to the Bush Administration’s decision to leave Iraq by 2011. «with the revolution against Assad — and I did early on say we needed to try to find a way to train and equip moderates very early so that we would have a better idea of how to deal with Assad because I thought there would be extremist groups filling the vacuum.»

This doesn’t instill much confidence. Clinton’s eagerness to blame those who came before her, while not entirely without merit, reeks of the «politician» stench she is trying to rid herself of, especially with a tide of left-wing populist sentiment massing behind Bernie Sanders.

Martin O’Malley to his credit mentioned the horrific tragedy that recently occurred in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula when a Russian airliner exploded and killed over two hundred people, most of them Russian tourists. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the heinous act, and while some evidence points that way, whether they did so is still not known for certain.

The outpouring of grief from the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut to a lesser extent seems to be leading to a more proactive coalition against Islamic State, a coalition Russia and the United States find themselves on some common ground but opposite ends of in other places. Both countries have expressed contempt for Islamic State and their barbaric rule over parts of Syria and Iraq, and both countries have endured horrible tragedy at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Russia’s support of Assad is firm, but his position has been severely weakened and whispers of a transitional government have been heard. Whether there will be a strong coalition between the United States, European Union and Russian Federation against ISIS is not yet clear. But if compromises can be reached in the name of eradicating the Islamic State we will see it soon, whether good it or not.

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