On Syria, Trump Splits from Pence, Clinton Vows No Ground Troops

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate, in St. Louis, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate, in St. Louis, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump broke from his running mate Mike Pence on a proposed strategy for Syria, while his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton vowed she would not deploy ground troops to the war-torn country.

Their comments came during the second presidential debate, a contentious forum that took place Sunday night in St. Louis and was moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper and ABC News' Martha Raddatz.

Trump disagreed with Pence's calls to meet Russian provocations in Syria with "American strength." During last week's vice presidential debate, Pence, the governor of Indiana, said, "if Russia chooses to continue to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime."

When asked about the comments, Trump simply said, "He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree."

Nearly a half-million people have died during the five-year-old civil war in Syria, according to advocacy groups. Heavy fighting has recently occurred in the northwestern city of Aleppo, where Syrian government forces backed by Russia have launched airstrikes against rebels who oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

While Pence referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the "small and bullying leader of Russia," Trump praised Russia for fighting militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

"Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS, Iran is killing ISIS," Trump said.

The Republican presidential candidate also attacked Clinton for supporting the Obama administration's strategy to train and equip rebel groups. "She talks rebels, but she doesn't know who the rebels are," he said.

Notably, Clinton said she wouldn't send "ground forces" into Syria, where an estimated 300 U.S. special operations forces are already deployed.

"I would not use American ground forces in Syria," she said. "I think that would be a very serious mistake. I do not think U.S. troops should be holding territory."

Clinton said she would support the creation of a no-fly zone in Syria.

"We need some leverage with the Russians because they're not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution unless there is leverage over them," she said.

President Barack Obama has refused to authorize the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria, but the idea has support from some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain. The Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee over the weekend joined other Republicans in withdrawing support for Trump after news broke about lewd comments he made in 2005 about women.

Clinton also said she would prioritize targeting Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and consider arming Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq, where some 5,000 American troops are serving.

"I hope that by the time I am president, we will have pushed ISIS out of Iraq," she said. "I do think that there is a good chance that we can take Mosul."

When Trump questioned why U.S. officials would openly talk about the planned offensive in Mosul, Raddatz, the moderator, said the reasons could include to wage psychological operations against the enemy or coordinate civilian evacuations.

The subject of Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan, 27, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, came up when Clinton, responding to a questioner and self-described Muslim who asked about rising Islamophobia in the U.S., criticized Trump for attacking Khan's parents who spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

Trump responded, "First of all, Capt. Khan is an American hero." Trump added that, had he been president rather than George W. Bush, Khan "would be alive today" because he would have never deployed troops to Iraq in 2003. He criticized Clinton for voting in favor of the war.

In 2002, when asked by radio host Howard Stern if he was for a U.S. war in Iraq, Trump said, "Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly."

No question was asked about the war in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military has been fighting for 15 years. Roughly 9,800 American troops and 6,300 international troops are now serving in the country.

The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for 9 p.m. Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.

--Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

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