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The Deadly Consequences Of Ugly U.S. Politics 

Whatever steps the next president takes will have to happen quickly.
Whatever steps the next president takes will have to happen quickly.

If you're reading this, then you have Internet access, and no matter where in the world you live, you probably know a lot more about the U.S. presidential candidates than you probably want to. It's no secret that this year's election cycle has been particularly negative, with candidates and pundits slinging plenty of mud at each other.

Arguments broke out in the course of the campaign over recorded comments made more than a decade ago by Donald Trump, in which the Republican candidate appeared to brag about what amounted to sexual assault. Much time was spent discussing his respect for women, the language he has used about Mexicans and Muslims, and other personal qualities of the real-estate mogul turned politician. Trump, of course, fired back, accusing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton -- whom he often refers to as "crooked Hillary" -- of hiding donors to her family's charitable foundation and of colluding with her husband to bury accusations that the former president was himself involved in sexual malfeasance.

As election day approached, much of the focus turned to the reopening of an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as secretary of state and internal communications that have been published by WikiLeaks that are potentially embarrassing to Clinton and her staff.

These are only a few of the issues that have come to characterize the last year and a half of American politics. And you may have noticed by now that none of them is focused on specific policies.

If you are a member of the extremist group Islamic State (IS), or if you happen to be the president of Russia or Syria, this is music to your ears.

What is currently taking place in Syria and Iraq is a tangled mess of alliances and fighting groups , extremist organizations and pro-democracy activists, and sectarian tensions that are arguably being heightened by the very military campaign that is designed to dismantle IS's sectarian warfare machine. In Iraq, the political balance between Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds is in turmoil, with the Kurds and the Shi'a competing to retake territory controlled by the Sunni extremists IS. But both groups, particularly the Shi'ite militias that have varying degrees of association with Iran, have been accused of their own sectarian war crimes.

Across the border in Syria, there are arguably two (nearly) completely separate wars being waged. The one that has received the most media attention over the last few years is the fight against IS conducted by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups, U.S.-led air strikes, the Turkish military, as well as Turkish and U.S.-supported Sunni rebel groups.

A Syrian boy climbs out of a bomb shelter in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, on October 30.
A Syrian boy climbs out of a bomb shelter in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, on October 30.

Just kilometers away from this conflict lies the northern edge of Syria's second war -- or rather the first war, since it predates the war against IS by more than three years: the war between a large portion of the Syrian populace and the Assad government. This conflict did not start out as a war but as a protest movement -- a popular uprising against more than four decades of rule by a single family that was met with the utmost brutality. When a large percentage of Assad's own soldiers refused to shoot civilians and many instead opted to protect them, the Syrian war was born.

Since that time, a wide variety of external parties have become involved. Russia and Iran have provided arms, fuel, supplies, and money -- to say nothing of political support and, eventually, soldiers -- for the Assad government and the Syrian military. Private citizens across the Middle East provided funding to various rebel groups (with various ideologies, ranging from moderate to extremist). Countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar, and the United States have each assisted or directly armed and trained individual rebel units.

No, the Syrian crisis did not start as a proxy war, nor did it necessarily begin with wider geopolitical consequences. And while Russia and Iran had a clear strategy from the beginning -- the protection of Assad at all costs -- none of the opposing players fully committed to the effort to topple him. The result is that the opposition to Assad is now a splintered mess, with various rebel groups catering to whatever ideological beliefs they believe are most likely to get them the most support. Radical Islamic Saalafism, or even jihadism, has been adopted by some groups by choice, while it has been tolerated to greater or lesser degrees by others who cannot afford to fight against Assad, Iran, Russia, Hizbullah, Iraqi Shi'ite militias, and their fellow Sunni rebels.

In this vacuum, Islamic State continues to wage its wars and its terrorism campaigns, Al-Qaeda is growing, and governments like Russia and Assad continue to kill civilians without consequence.

It's a mess.

It's tempting, then, to dismiss this mess as unfixable. Many analysts, however, believe that the threat of terrorism and the wave of refugees originating from this region means that this complicated knot is now tangled around our throats. Others believe that the various countries across the world are complicit in the creation of this crisis and so have a responsibility to fix it. Still others believe that at the very least we can no longer do business with those who are making this crisis worse.

There appears to be a consensus that has emerged from both the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that something must be done about this crisis. Clinton has advocated establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria, at least. So did Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, who was overruled five days later by Donald Trump himself. Clinton has not explained how she will implement her plan without triggering war with Russia. Trump, on the other hand, has claimed that both Assad and Russia are fighting IS and should be allowed to continue to do so, statements that have drawn the ire of Syrian groups that oppose the so-called Islamic State and that do not align with investigations of Russia's air campaign in Syria conducted by RFE/RL and other organizations.

In other words, though there have been heated exchanges about Syria, IS, and Iraq, there is no consensus between the two candidates about the facts. There is no real debate about policy taking place. Neither candidate has addressed sectarian tensions, the role of the Kurds, the intervention of Turkey, or even basic questions like which of the competing warring parties should play a central role in the capturing of IS's strongholds of Raqqa or Mosul.

This is not to say that neither candidate has opinions or insight into these complicated matters. But what it means is that there has been little public debate about what, specifically, can be done to address the sectarian warfare, humanitarian suffering, growing geopolitical tensions, or the threat or terrorism that is seething in the Middle East and beyond as a result of these conflicts. This means that there is no robust debate among experts, journalists, activists, or politicians about what can and should be done since, without a specific policy debate, all discussion of these eventualities can only take place in generalities and hypotheticals.

This is problematic because things in Syria and Iraq are moving so quickly. There are about 80 days until the next U.S. president will be inaugurated. Even if they have a specific policy prescription to address this crisis, it will take time to lay the political and logistical groundwork to execute that plan. Typically, the first 100 days of a presidency are dominated by domestic policy goals. That points to a long wait -- perhaps 180 days, or possibly longer -- for Syria and Iraq to be addressed, and a lot can happen in that time. As an example, the Turkish invasion of northern Syria took place less than 80 days ago. The Syrian military's siege of Aleppo, which has come to dominate the conversation about Syria, only began about 130 days ago.

What will Syria and Iraq look like in 180 days?

Whatever steps the next president takes will have to happen quickly. This timeline opens up two unwelcome possibilities -- that a policy to address these problems will be pushed through quickly and with little public debate, or that the process will be stretched out to the point where, at best, it may be harder to steer the response to the crisis or, at worst, it may be too late.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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