Candidates representing the liberal and moderate wings of the 2020 Democratic field rejected the idea that the U.S. military should intervene in the humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are assaulting the last rebel holdout in the country.
In Tuesday night’s primary debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg argued that the United States should work with allies to “stand with the people” of Idlib. There are roughly 3 million people in increasingly desperate conditions in Idlib, including about one million people displaced from other parts of the country during the nine-year civil war.
But both rejected a military role in the crisis, hinting at a broad squeamishness across the field about introducing U.S. troops into fresh hostilities.
“We don’t have to be invading countries to be making a difference,” Buttigieg said, calling for the United States to work “with our international partners, in order to deliver peace [and] support those who are standing up for self-determination.”
“This is not a moment for military intervention,” Warren said, calling for the United States to provide humanitarian relief and work with allies. “We have got to use our military only when we see a military problem that can be solved militarily. We cannot send our military in unless we have a plan to get them out.”
Neither provided specifics on what a multinational coalition could or should do to ameliorate the dire situation in northeast Syria.
“It’s about standing with the people who are under enormous pressure right now,” Warren said, without specifying whether she was speaking about rebels fighting Assad or civilians trapped and endangered by the offensive.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has condemned the Syrian offensive on Idlib, which is backed by Russian airpower. Turkey has sent troops and equipment into the region on the side of the rebels, and Pompeo has said that the United States is working with Ankara to help resolve the crisis. He has not provided details.
Democrats have broadly accused Trump of ceding diplomatic power in Syria when he drew down troops to less than 1,000 earlier this year, leaving America’s local Kurdish partners in the fight against ISIS vulnerable to a Turkish attack.
“We have got to change the balance of power in the region, because the president has basically vanished from the stage when it comes to even playing a role in the future there,” Buttigieg said.
But 2020 Democrats, at least on the surface, have also expressed limited appetite for involving U.S. troops in new conflicts — and at least in the case of Afghanistan, have called for the Pentagon to draw down troops. (Some candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have called for the complete removal of troops from Afghanistan within his first year in office.)
But on paper, Democrats have remained open to the use of military force for humanitarian purposes. Sanders, Buttigieg, and Warren have all said they would consider using the military for a humanitarian intervention — as a last resort.
“We should exercise that responsibility first and foremost through a foreign policy that prioritizes diplomacy to prevent or end conflicts and atrocities, including by reaffirming an international order that protects and values human rights around the world,” Warren said in a recent survey on foreign policy views by the New York Times. “In extremely rare circumstances, there may be a role for humanitarian intervention — when limited in duration, with clear objectives, authorized by Congress, within U.S. capabilities, and conducted in cooperation with partners and allies and in compliance with applicable international law.”