Sanders stressed the primacy of combating Daesh/ISIS, while Clinton insisted the US could effectively combat Daesh/ISIS while simultaneously focusing on regime change in Damascus. I certainly think Sanders is taking a more realistic perspective on this. And it's a sobering reminder of how committed Clinton still is to a hawkish foreign policy, including regime change operations.
The fascination in Washington for "regime change" operations never seems to go away, no matter how many times they botch things up mightily.
It's kind of damning-by-faint-praise to say that Obama's Syria policy is better than the Republicans'. John Kerry even recently suggested that the "regime change" policy in Syria is being downgraded in priority. While the Republicans' proposals amount to "War! Carpet bombing! Punch Putin in the nose! Scary Mooslims, aaaa-eeee-iiiii!!!" But if the Obama Administration has any clear political strategy in the Syrian war, I can't tell what it is. And spreading jihadist chaos even further doesn't really seem to me to be a good outcome to aim for.
No, rightwing trolls, I'm not suggesting that's a conscious goal of the Obama Administration. But it is a likely result of ousting Bashar al-Assad as Syrian President at this point. History doesn't repeat itself exactly. But the recent examples of regime change in Iraq and Libya certainly offer grounds for skepticism.
Juan Cole comments on Sanders' and Clinton's positions on Syria in (Clinton: Trump chief recruiter for ISIL; Sanders: Take out Daesh First, Assad Later Informed Comment 12/20/2015). His criticism of Clinton here is milder than mine would be:
Sec. Clinton is correct that Trump is playing into the trap set by Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), which wants to polarize Christians and Muslims and drive Muslims into joining its ranks.Here he comments on the Syria debate:
On the other hand, 9/11 was not committed by American Muslims and they shouldn’t be held responsible for it or dragooned into being junior FBI agents just because of their religion. They have the same responsibility to speak up if they see people plotting violence as everyone else. But we don’t typically draft evangelicals into watching that none of their members goes postal and shoots up a Planned Parenthood clinic. That Clinton wants to continue this Bushism is a little disturbing. [my emphasis]
Both Sen. Sanders and Sec. Clinton make fair points. It certainly is that case, as Sanders argues, that it is more pressing to crush Daesh than to see the Syrian government overthrown. In fact, if you overthrow the Baath government first, what would stop Daesh from sweeping into Damascus and taking over Syria?Cole may be a little defensive about the regime change operation in Libya, which he explicitly supported:
On the other hand, the US has attempted to create anti-Daesh coalitions on the ground among Arab fighters, and they have foundered because the Syrian rebels don’t want to fight other rebels, they want to fight al-Assad. So if you tell the Syrian revolutionaries you support them but you’re going to let Assad stay there for several years while you get rid of Daesh, you will alienate the rebels.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s approach has been to cooperate most closely with the leftist Syrian Kurds and the small force of their Arab allies in the country’s northeast, since they are willing to fight Daesh first and consider it much more deadly than the regime. In fact, in Hasaka the leftist Kurds have a tactical alliance with the Syrian Arab Army, which makes them anathema to the Arab rebels of the northwest, who are tactically allied with al-Qaeda.
No one brought up this uncomfortable reality, that the most effective Saudi-backed rebel forces are allied with al-Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front), which reports to 9/11 planner Ayman al-Zawahiri. The US is effectively allied with allies of al-Qaeda in the northwest, and the most likely result of a quick overthrow of the regime is that much of Syria goes into the control of al-Qaeda or its close friends.
I have to say that I think Sanders won this part of the debate, just because his position is more coherent and practical. Overthrowing Daesh and al-Assad simultaneously is a tall order, more especially when the latter overthrow will heavily involve and will benefit al-Qaeda. [my emphasis]
Clinton pointed out that Sanders voted for the UN/ NATO no-fly zone in Libya that led to Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow. She admitted that the US and Europe did not do enough in the aftermath to rebuild Libya’s army and government. But she also pointed out that the Libyans rejected most of the aid that was offered in this regard. (She is right about this.)Which I think eludes the point that the fall of Gadaffi, an ouster militarily backed by NATO including the Obama Administration, left Libya a terrorist hotbed, which it had not been under Gaddafi.
Actually, I think both of them missed the real difficulty, which is that Gulf states shipped in a lot of RPGs and other weapons to the rebels during the revolution, creating heavily armed militias that have refused to demobilize to this day. It wasn’t the no-fly zone or the urban Libyan overthrow of Gaddafi that caused the problems.