ST. LOUIS — Republican candidate Donald Trump flatly contradicted his running mate on Syria policy in the second presidential debate Sunday, signaling a lack of cohesion on foreign policy issues.
“He and I haven’t spoken, and he and I disagree,” Trump said in response to a question about whether he backs the possible use of military force against the Assad regime in Syria as staked out by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, with whom he shares the ticket, at the vice presidential debate on Tuesday.
Trump at Sunday night’s presidential town hall was asked how he would deal with the ongoing humanitarian crisis triggered by the Syrian regime’s bombing of Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, which it’s doing in cooperation with Russia.
In Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, Pence said he felt the US ought to establish safe zones and meet Russian “provocations” with strength, backing the use of military force if necessary.
Pence made no immediate public reference to their foreign policy disconnect. At the debate’s end, Pence tweeted “congrats to my running mate @realDonaldTrump on a big debate win! Proud to stand with you as we #MAGA.” Pence made no immediate public reference to their foreign policy disconnect. At the debate’s end, Pence tweeted “congrats to my running mate @realDonaldTrump on a big debate win! Proud to stand with you as we #MAGA.”
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway denied that Trump and Pence were at odds on Syria, noting that she’d just spoken to the Indiana governor on the phone. She said that their answers differed because “they were talking about two different things.”
In the vice presidential debate on Tuesday, “the conversation was about humanitarian crisis and that’s what Gov. Pence was referring to,” Conway told CNN following the debate, “and the debate tonight was about military action.”
The question to Trump, however, was how he would respond to the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, and in the vice presidential debate, Pence cast his answer as a response to humanitarian concerns about the besieged Syria city.
The US “should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo,” Pence said.
On Sunday night, Trump indicated that he didn’t think that Russia was part of the problem in the war-torn country. Instead, he said that Russia is fighting ISIS, a conclusion that is not shared by US intelligence agencies, the Obama administration or US allies.
“Russia is killing ISIS,” Trump said, making similar comments about the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Syria is fighting ISIS.”
Democrat Hillary Clinton countered on Sunday that “Russia hasn’t paid any attention to ISIS, Russia is interested in keeping Assad in power.”
Clinton said at the debate, at Washington University in St. Louis, that she advocates creating a no-fly zone that would offer safety to Syrians fleeing the violence. She added, “We need some leverage with the Russians, because they’re not going to come to the table.”
Secretary of State John Kerry called on Friday for war crimes investigations against Russia and Syria for their bombing of Aleppo. On Saturday, Russia vetoed a United Nations resolution calling for a halt in air attacks on Aleppo.
Clinton said at the debate that she supported “the effort to investigate war crimes committed by the Syrians and the Russians” in Aleppo.
Trump, for his part, has held a number of different positions on Syria, suggesting in September 2015 on CBS that the US should wait out the conflict in Syria and let ISIS fight Assad’s government, after which the US could “pick up the remnants.”
In a March 2016 debate, he seemed to advocate sending tens of thousands of US troops to battle ISIS, saying, “We really have no choice, we have to knock out ISIS.” He added that, “I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000.”
Trump has also said that he would support the creation of a safe zone inside Syria, but only financially. He has proposed that US allies including the Gulf States do the work of creating the safe zone.