Gwynne Dyer | Sometimes Trump is right
Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Donald J. Trump's record is not that good, but he does get it right once in a while. He got it right last Tuesday when he said that Hillary Clinton would be dangerously aggressive in Syria if she wins the presidency.
Trump went too far, of course. He always does. He claimed that Clinton would trigger World War Three with her Syrian policy, which is utter nonsense. Given the current international balance of power, it is almost impossible to get a Russian-American war going. The Russians simply aren't that stupid.
Even a new Cold War is hard to imagine. The Russians know that they would lose it in only a few years, so they would refuse to play their allotted role in any such scenario. But US-Russian diplomatic relations would get distinctly frosty for a while - and the United States, in the meantime, would be up to its neck in the Syrian civil war and betting on the wrong horse.
What Trump actually said, in an interview conducted at his Florida golf resort between bites of fried egg and sausages, was that the United States should focus on defeating ISIS. "We should not be focusing on Syria. You're going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton."
The Clinton policy in question is her promise (repeated in the third debate) to declare a no-fly zone and "safe zones" on the ground in Syria to protect non-combatants. Those zones, of course, would deny the Syrian government the chance to recover the territory it has lost to the rebels and deprive the Russian air force of the ability to help it in that task.
But what if the Syrians and the Russians don't accept that the United States has the right to set up no-fly zones on Syrian territory just because it feels like it? What if they send their planes into those zones and dare the US air force to shoot them down? Then the US has to choose between backing down and being publicly humiliated - or shooting down Russian aircraft, and (according to Trump), starting World War Three.
"You're not fighting Syria anymore, you're fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right?" Trump explained. If Hillary Clinton set up her no-fly zones and safe zones, she would be asking for a war with Russia.
She would indeed be asking for it - but she knows that she probably would not get it. The Russians might shoot down a few American planes in response, and the United Nations would plead with both sides to show restraint. By then both sides would be sufficiently frightened that they would be all too happy to back away from their confrontation.
RUSSIANS CAN'T WIN WAR
The Russians would be especially happy to do so because they know perfectly well that they could not win a war with the United States. Even leaving aside the question of nuclear weapons (which make such a war unthinkable), Russia is simply not a credible rival to the United States anymore: it has half the population of the former Soviet Union and an economy one-tenth the size of the United States.
So Clinton would not really be courting World War Three if she did what she has promised. She would, however, be doing something very reckless and stupid. After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States really does not need to get more deeply entangled in another unwinnable war in the Middle East.
What Trump is advocating is actually the policy that Obama has been following over the whole five years of the Syrian civil war: concentrate on eliminating ISIS, and do not get involved in the rebel military campaign to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's regime, however much you may dislike it. No more moral crusades. Whereas Clinton, by declaring no-fly zones, would effectively be creating safe areas for the rebels to operate out of.
However, the great majority of the active anti-regime fighters belong to ISIS, or to the equally extreme group that used to be called the Nusra Front and is now changing its name every week or so in an attempt to conceal its true origins as a breakaway part of Islamic State and an affiliate of al-Qaeda.
Most of the smaller rebel groups that Washington calls 'moderates' are actually less extreme Islamists who are either voluntarily allied with the Nusra Front or in thrall to it. But the fantasy still lives in Washington that it can bring together enough genuine 'moderates' to create a 'third force' that defeats both the Assad regime and the extremists of ISIS and the Nusra Front.
This has been the official position of the Washington consensus on foreign policy for five years now, and Hillary Clinton is a paid-up member of that delusionary group. If she carries through on her promises, she probably will trigger a crisis with the Russians, and she will certainly involve the United States much more deeply in the Syrian civil war.
It's almost enough to make you vote for Trump. But not quite.
- Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Email feedback to email@example.com.