Only two were given a chance to speak on the topic during the latest debate and neither answer proposed a workable solution.
The world woke up to news last Friday morning that an airstrike had killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in Idlib, Syria. Just days before, in the United States, two of the seven top Democratic presidential candidates had given answers to a question at a debate in the US state of South Carolina, which held its primary election Saturday.
Each is vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination to take on President Donald Trump in general elections in November. If Trump loses the general election, it could likely mean a rapid, overnight shift in the course of US foreign policy. It is likely that the world will get a better idea after primary elections in 14 US states which take place on Tuesday, March 3, also known as ‘Super Tuesday’, in which lacklustre performances could force some candidates to drop out of the race for the Democratic Party's nomination.
But what could the ultimate outcome of the 2020 election mean for Syrians suffering in Idlib under regime attacks and Russian bombardment? The answers of two of the candidates, former South Bend Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, did not satisfy the 25-year-old American who asked their opinions, via Twitter, to the debate moderators.
“I was very disappointed by the responses given,” Ayoub Ouederni, a Yale University law student from the US state of North Carolina, told TRT World. “Mayor Buttigieg only briefly spoke about how the United States no longer has a seat at the table when it comes to Syria, then pivoted to attack Senator Sanders on Medicare for All. Senator Warren ruled out military involvement and said she would only be willing to work with our allies to deliver humanitarian supplies to the people of Syria—in short, a band-aid solution that would not address the underlying crisis.”
Only two of the seven candidates on the debate stage got an opportunity to answer the question, so we can’t know how the others would have responded. Buttigieg represents the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, and Warren’s policies are farther left. But both of them represent the status quo from US politicians on Syria: an inability to explain to voters what is going on and what they will do about it.
Buttigieg, who in 2014 served a seven-month tour as a Naval officer in Afghanistan, on Sunday night ended his bid for the White House after a poor showing in the South Carolina primary. Nevertheless, his views provide insight into the position, or lack thereof, centrist Democrats hold on Syria.
Warren represents a more progressive faction of the Democratic Party, determined to rein in irresponsible capitalism. However, on Syria policy, Warren and Buttigieg last week in Charleston South Carolina sounded remarkably similar to Ouederni watching in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
By all accounts, the debate was chaotic, with candidates shouting over each other and demanding the right to respond to each other. What follows is the transcript of Buttigieg and Warren’s answers, provided by US television news network CBS.
(Debate moderator Margaret) BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Norah. This is a question for Mayor Buttigieg. As you know, viewers and voters are participating in this through Twitter. The city of Idlib in Syria is facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The Syrian regime and Russia are targeting schools, bakeries, and hospitals. What would you do as president to push back regime and Russian forces and stop the killing of innocent civilians?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, first of all, I stand with the people of Idlib, who are being targeted, as you said, in a brutal fashion by a dictatorship that has already been so brutal for so many years.
And this is one of the reasons we have got to change the balance of power in the region, because the president has basically vanished from the stage when it comes to even playing a role in the future there. Turkey, Russia, Iran all have so much more of a say than we do. We don't have to be invading countries to be making a difference, working with our international partners, in order to deliver peace and support those who are standing up for self-determination.
Now, I want to come back to something -- and I promise it relates to international affairs -- because Senator Sanders asked me a question earlier. He asked the question of whether health care for everybody is a radical idea, and it's not, which is why I'm for it, very much in a different way, though.What is a radical idea is completely eliminating all private insurance. And part of how you know it is, is that no industrialized country has gone that far. He and I both like to talk about Denmark, for example. But even in Denmark, they have not abolished the possibility of private insurance. So this is an idea that goes further than what is acceptable in Denmark the country, let alone imagining how that's going to fly in Denmark, South Carolina.
BRENNAN: Thank you, Mayor.
(Vermont Senator Bernie) SANDERS: Can I respond?
In attempting to provide an answer on Syria, Buttigieg had called out Sanders’ plan for eliminating private insurance for Americans. Sanders did not get a chance to respond, to the healthcare issue or the original Syria question. But it was painfully obvious that Buttigieg did not have an actual answer, and, as a skillful politician, replied with his own answer to a different question while still technically discussing ‘’international affairs’.’ He also refused to answer key foreign policy questions asked by the New York Times.
His closing zinger was about American healthcare and Denmark, not Syria. There is a particularly bleak irony here, as the original question concerned Russian bombing of Syrian hospitals.
Here is what Sen. Warren had to say:
BRENNAN: Senator Warren, would you like to respond? What would do -- what would Senator Warren do to stop the mass murder?
WARREN: I'm sorry?
BRENNAN: What would -- same question. What would you do to stop the mass murder in Idlib, Syria?
WARREN: Look, I think that what we've got to do is we have to provide humanitarian relief. We need to work with our allies on this. But this is not a moment for military intervention. We have got to use our military only when we see a military problem that can be solved militarily. We cannot send our military in unless we have a plan to get them out. So, for me, this is about working with our allies. It is about standing with the people who are under enormous pressure right now. This is recognizing what Donald Trump has put us in, in a terrible box around the world. But the solution is not to use our military. The solution is to use the other tools here.
Warren has been praised for her detailed plans to overhaul the US financial system and to cut down on abuses by big banks, but her answer on Syria was as ignorant as Buttigieg’s was evasive. The US currently has troops in eastern Syria. The US military has already intervened against Daesh in Syria, but the suffering of civilians in Idlib does not not appear to be a priority for the Trump administration.
Warren's position sounds outdated, in line with the talking points in circulation in Washington in 2012, which shied away from decisive action against the Assad regime or major commitment to rebel forces. Major US military intervention, with the goal of the US toppling Syria’s Bashar al Assad, has become an orphaned position in US politics, one proposed but never realised by President Barack Obama and then abandoned completely by President Trump. I asked Oudernia what he would do if he were secretary of state for a potential President Sanders, who is now the frontrunner to capture the Democratic nomination.
“If I were Sanders’s Secretary of State, I would advise him to deploy Patriots to the frontline and establish a no-fly zone over all of Syria,’’ Ouederni wrote. “I would also push him to support Turkey retaking Idlib and its surrounding countryside from the Regime, so that there is a safe zone for refugees. To those who believe US military intervention would make the violence worse, I would tell them to look at what is happening in the absence of US intervention: a refugee crisis, intentional targeting of civilian infrastructure by Russia and the regime, and hundreds of thousands dead. Only US military power can stop Russia and the regime from continuing their onslaught.’’
Ouederni’s position here poses a paradox for the next US president, and especially Sanders. Like Obama before him, Sanders has won supporters who feel he will reduce US military engagements overseas, wars the US does not seem capable of ever winning, losing or ending. There is a deep cynicism about the prospects for any kind of humanitarian pretext for removing a brutal regime, as those same pretexts filled the airwaves in America before the Iraq invasion. Syria’s circumstances are quite different, but they look the same to millions of American voters.
At the core of the paradox is the incompatibility of imperial power and representative government. The US has tried since the end of World War II to balance the demands of the public, wary of dying far from home in vain, with the priorities of foreign policymakers, wary of seeing US hegemony wane. These priorities seem impossible for voters to understand, in part because so many politicians, like Buttigieg and Warren, are either unwilling or unable to explain them.
They can send astronauts to the moon, but Americans still have not figured out how to run an empire and be a democracy at the same time.