Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is strong, remarkably popular and certainly a better leader than U.S. President Barack Obama. Trump has said he’s not bothered by Russian involvement in Syria, where Putin is propping up the regime of Bashar Assad and slaughtering civilians in airstrikes. “Let Russia fight ISIS,” he suggested last year.
But Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), took the exact opposite position during Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, warning that Putin is a “small and bullying leader” who is jerking the U.S. around. He said the U.S. should set up a no-fly zone in Syria and be prepared to bomb the Assad regime to prevent Aleppo from falling to the Syrian government’s forces.
“When Donald Trump becomes president, the Russians and other countries in the world will know they are dealing with a strong American president,” Pence said. “This foreign policy from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has awakened a Russian aggression … all we do now is throw up our arms and say, ‘We are not having talks anymore,’” he said, referring to Monday’s news that ceasefire negotiations between the U.S. and Russia had collapsed.
Trump came close to criticizing Russia on Tuesday, before the debate, when he said, “Russia broke the deal, and now they’re shooting, they’re bombing, something like that.” But still, he cited U.S. weakness as the reason for Moscow’s actions and stopped far short of calling for U.S. military action in Syria.
Given that Trump’s son reportedly told Pence he would be responsible for overseeing the country’s domestic and foreign policy if the duo made it into the Oval Office, Pence’s Syria policy may matter more than Trump’s.
The no-fly zone proposed by Pence actually more closely resembles the Syria policy proffered by Clinton than Trump. The former secretary of state doesn’t talk about it much anymore, in part because it’s an unpopular position among progressive voters. But she has consistently said that, as commander in chief, she would take a more aggressive posture in Syria than Obama has, and enforce a no-fly zone over Syria in an effort to allow humanitarian aid into the country and to pressure Russia and Syria to make concessions in diplomatic talks.
Pence provided scant details on how he would implement the no-fly zone ― an operation that military experts say would be costly and high-risk. “There is a framework that has been recognized by the international community, but the United States needs to be prepared to work with others in the region to create a route for safe passage, and to protect people in those areas,” he said Tuesday.
No-fly zones come with significant risks ― primarily the possibility of an armed clash between American and Russian or Syrian forces. Such an incident would quickly escalate U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war and likely spark a proxy war between Washington and Moscow. Even longtime proponents of the operation, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), admit, “There’s always risk of a wider war.”
Pence doesn’t seem to be shying away from that possibility. Trump, for his part, has said he’d prefer to sit that fight out and “see what happens.”
“That does not sound like me very much,” he said last year when asked about a no-fly zone. “I want to sit back, I want to see what happens.”