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Syria and 2016

by Chris Estep, published

Few people have been talking about how the Syrian conflict will affect the 2016 presidential elections, but there is a high chance that it will. Regardless of this new agreement between the United States and Russia to take Assad's chemical weapons out of play, the civil war will continue. People on both sides will continue to die. And in the United States, the debate about intervention may be on pause, but the situation in Syria remains in the backs of many minds. In a purely political sense, the most important effect of the quick, yet fierce debate over military action was that many 2016 prospective candidates were forced to play their hand on a foreign policy issue.

Even if the Syrian conflict itself is not much of a topic in 2016, it has firmly established many hopefuls in the interventionist or non-interventionist camps. In 2008, the last time the White House was without an incumbent, one of the major issues was the American military presence in the Middle East. It would not be entirely out of the question for international affairs to hold the same sort of significance in 2016 as in 2008. The purpose of this article is to examine how the debate over intervention in Syria will impact the 2016 race.

A July PPP poll showed Hillary Clinton with a commanding lead among Democrats in Iowa: 71% wanted to see her nominated. Vice President Joe Biden was far behind, with 12%. Together, the two potential candidates have the support of 83% of Iowa Democrats. And yet, both strongly supported President Obama's initial pursuit of congressional authorization for military action in Syria. Biden played an important role in the White House's intense lobbying efforts, even joining the president and some Republican senators for a "family style Italian dinner", according to CNN's Tom Cohen. Clinton, now a private citizen, traveled to the White House to speak in favor of military action in Syria. Writing for the New York Daily News, Joseph Straw stated that "the value of Clinton's support-and the risks it could pose for her own political future-were open to debate."

It is unclear how initial support for the strikes could impact Clinton in the Democratic primary. According to a September 6-8 CNN/ORC poll, 56% of Democrats thought that Congress should authorize military action in Syria; 43% opposed authorization. In the same poll, however, 59% of all respondents did not want Congress to approve intervention in Syria. Both Clinton and Biden could face a revolt in their party over their initial support for the military plan. If either of them wins the nomination, he or she will face a broader public that was less supportive of the policy.

As for the Republican Party? The debate about intervention revealed yet another divide in the GOP, this time on foreign policy. Several potential candidates, like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, quickly opposed the request for authorization. Rubio was working to recover, in the words of The Hill's Alexandra Jaffe, "the waning support he's seen from conservatives over his leadership on immigration reform..."

Cruz was perhaps looking to close the distance between himself and Paul. The previously mentioned PPP poll showed Cruz with support among 10% of Iowa Republicans, 11% for Rubio, and 18% for Paul. Regardless, the debate on Syria was especially important for Republican hopefuls, because at the time intervention was being considered, 63% within the GOP opposed authorization.

But not every potential Republican candidate was immediately critical of the plan for military action in Syria. Chris Christie, when asked about the debate over intervention, responded by saying, "I'm going to leave that to the people who represent us in Congress", according to Politico's Maggie Haberman. Elsewhere, Haberman wrote that "for Christie, who has tended to be hawkish on national security issues, foreign policy is a weakness, one he has started addressing..."

Ambiguity on the Syria issue was particularly easy for the New Jersey governor, since he never had to cast a vote on the authorization resolution. However, if the situation in Syria continues to be an important issue, Christie will eventually have to take a position. For now, his silence on the subject highlights a growing rift between Republican non-interventionists and internationalists. Ying Ma, writing on, interpreted the stance of Rubio, Cruz, and Paul as a "collective challenge to the reigning interventionist dogma of the GOP."

There are three possible endgames for Syria and 2016. One is that the issue will no longer matter and will have little bearing on the primaries and election. Seeing as there is no end in sight to the civil war in Syria, that option currently seems least likely.

Another option is that the conflict will escalate, thousands more will die, the U.S. will sit out, and the American people will want to see some action, military or otherwise. This scenario would certainly bolster the Republican internationalists, and would also preserve Clinton and Biden.

The final possible route is that the United States will intervene militarily in Syria at some point over the next three years. Assuming that military action will have negative consequences (not a poor assumption to make), the non-interventionists of the GOP will enjoy support from a war-weary public. Clinton and Biden may also see challenges from their ideological left.

The debate about intervention in Syria may be indefinitely postponed, but its effects may still last far into the future. Even as far as 2016.

Image credit: Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. H. H. Deffner // Wikimedia Commons

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