Explained The New York Times: "Any airstrikes against Islamic State militants in and around Palmyra would probably benefit the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. So far, United States-led airstrikes in Syria have largely focused on areas far outside government control, to avoid the perception of aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for."
In other words, the U.S. allowed ISIS to take one of the richest archeological sites in the Middle East even though it could have stopped it in its tracks. By the same token, it was Russian air strikes -- some of the heaviest, in fact, since Moscow entered the war in September 2015 -- that enabled Syrian forces to retake the city the following March.
The idea that Russia doesn't care about ISIS stood reality on its head. Moreover, when U.S. jets killed at least 62 government soldiers outside the ISIS-besieged town of Deir Ezzor last month, ISIS took advantage by launching an offensive just minutes after the bombing had ceased.
So, by holding its fire in the case of Palmyra and unleashing it in the case of Deir Ezzor, Washington -- inadvertently or not -- enables ISIS to advance and then gets huffy when anyone objects. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power declared when Russia dared call an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting in response: "Even by Russia's standards, tonight's stunt, a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding, is uniquely cynical and hypocritical."
The words were shocking not only because scores of people were dead, but also because Power was defending a bombing raid that had taken place on Syrian territory in flagrant violation of international law. While Syria's sovereign government has requested Russia's assistance, it has objected to the violation of its territory by the United States and its allies. That means the U.S. coalition has no legal right, under international law, to be operating in or over Syria.
As for the "no-fly zone" that Clinton invoked, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in early 2012 that it would mean mobilizing as many as 70,000 US military personnel to neutralize Syria's extensive anti-aircraft network -- and that was before Russia decided to buttress Syria's defenses by installing sophisticated S-300 and S-400 missiles. A "no-fly-zone" also would be an act of war in which the U.S. would not only have to fire on Syrian forces, but on Russian and Iranian forces, too. Instead of peace, the result would be a vast escalation.
Finally, Clinton's reflexive Russia-bashing showed just how bellicose her worldview has become. If Trump was the first person in a presidential debate to threaten a rival with jail, Clinton was the first to label her opponent an agent of a hostile foreign power.
Yet, Clinton's efforts to blame Russia for the Syria debacle make little sense. After all, Russia didn't enter the war until September 2015, more than four years after the blood had started to flow. Rather than ambitions and aggressiveness, it's clear that its concerns are far more practical. Russian President Putin knows all too well that if Assad falls, it will be a repeat of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan in 1996, but on a far grander scale.
As Alastair Crooke, a diplomat and veteran of British military intelligence, observed in late 2015, Putin sees Syria as "Russia's veritable front line":
"Russia recalls how, after the Afghan war, radical Wahhabi-style Islam spread out from Afghanistan and reached up into Central Asia. Russia also recalls how the CIA and Saudi Arabia inflamed and used the Chechen insurgency to weaken Russia. ...
"But equally, President Putin shares the perception of many in the region that America and its allies are not serious about defeating ISIS. And sensing that the West was finally about to be lured by Turkey toward a no-fly zone -- which would only end, as it did in Libya, in chaos -- Putin played his surprise hand: he entered the war on 'terrorism,' blocked Turkey's project to 're-Ottomize' northern Syria, and challenged the West to join with him in the venture."
The idea was to force the U.S. into waging a real war against violent Salafists who were threatening Russia via its soft underbelly. If so, the effort backfired since the only thing it accomplished was to anger Washington's hardline foreign-policy establishment, which will undoubtedly be beside itself with fury if the rebels in east Aleppo are defeated.
Trump's Foggy Account
Trump, fatuous businessman that he is, mostly seemed lost in a fog of his own making. Once or twice, though, he seemed to have a glimmer of an idea of what was at stake. "Now, she talks tough," he said of Clinton:
"She talks really tough against Putin and against Assad. She talks in favor of the rebels. She doesn't even know who the rebels are. You know, every time we take rebels whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else, we're arming people. And you know what happens? They end up being worse than the people [they overthrow]. Look at what she did in Libya with Gaddafi. Gaddafi is out. It's a mess. And by the way, ISIS has a good chunk of their oil. I'm sure you've probably have heard that. It was a disaster. The fact is almost everything she has done has been a mistake and it's been a disaster."