Donald Trump’s comments underscored his striking disregard for many core assumptions both parties share about American foreign policy. | AP Photo
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Trump's praise of Russia, Iran and Assad regime riles GOP experts Foreign-policy leaders challenge the assertion that all three regimes are playing a positive role in Syria. By Michael Crowley 10/10/16 12:53 PM EDT Almost any list of America’s top foreign rivals would include Iran, Russia and the government of Syria. Sunday night, Donald Trump spoke approvingly of all three. Trump infuriated Republican insiders—and contradicted one of his own senior foreign policy advisers—when he suggested that those three governments are playing a positive role in Syria’s civil war. “I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS,” Trump said when asked about his plans for Syria. He was referring to the country’s president, Bashar Assad, and using an acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Although Trump has argued before against intervening in Syria, and often calls for cooperation with Russia against ISIS, his statement Sunday night was particularly blunt—and underscored the huge gap between Trump’s views and mainstream Republican thinking. Trump’s position also contradicted the view of one of his senior foreign policy advisers, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who stepped down as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. “When it is said that Russia would make an ideal partner for fighting Radical Islam, it behooves us to remember that the Russians haven't been very effective at fighting jihadis on their own territory, and are in cahoots with the Iranians,” Flynn wrote in his recent book, “Field of Fight.” “In Syria, the two allies have loudly proclaimed they are waging war against ISIS, but in reality the great bulk of their efforts are aimed at the opponents of the Assad regime,” Flynn adds in the book, co-written with the conservative policy analyst Michael Ledeen, who has also been identified as a Trump campaign adviser. After the debate, other experts called Trump’s claim factually and even morally dubious, arguing that Assad’s continued grip on power, with the support of Tehran and Moscow, makes it harder to defeat the radical Islamic group. “ISIS wouldn't be there but for Assad,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “For Assad, Iran and Russia, ISIS is at most a secondary enemy: The real enemy is the Syrian opposition (which they are crushing) and the Syrian population (which they are intimidating as brutally as they can),” said Eliot Cohen, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an email. Both Cohen and Pletka strongly oppose Trump. Trump presented the situation differently. “Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS,” he said. That echoes Assad’s consistent claims that he is a heroic bulwark against radical terrorism, and not fighting a popular insurrection with ultimately peaceful goals. Trump's comment also put him at odds with his own running mate, Mike Pence, who argued in last week's vice presidential debate that the U.S. should consider using "military force" against Assad if Russia continues to support Syrian forces with airstrikes in Aleppo. "He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree," Trump said. Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, supported the view that the Assad-Iran-Russia axis is not playing a significant role in the anti-ISIS fight. “The U.S.-led coalition does the lion’s share of the fighting against ISIS,” Tabler said. He noted that the Syria government has recaptured only about 2 percent of the country’s territory since Russia intervened on its behalf. Little of that is in ISIS-controlled areas. Iranian and Russian forces, aiding Assad’s embattled regime, have mostly targeted rebel fighters who themselves oppose ISIS. Some are relative moderates backed by the CIA, while others are radical Islamists aligned with Al Qaeda. Even those radicals consider ISIS to be too extreme. Trump’s comments underscored his striking disregard for many core assumptions both parties share about American foreign policy. PresidentBarack Obama repeatedly criticizes Assad, Iran and Russia for their joint military campaign against Assad’s foes, saying they are breeding extremism. Many GOP leaders, meanwhile, criticize Obama for not doing more to fight back against the Tehran-Moscow-Damascus axis. Virtually none beside Trump openly argue that those countries are playing a positive role in Syria. ISIS has capitalized on the chaos in Syria, seizing large swaths of sparsely inhabited territory in the country’s eastern half, where the Syrian government and its foreign allies have concentrated far less effort than around cities like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. U.S. officials believe that Russia began airstrikes in Syria last fall not to combat ISIS but to prevent Assad from potential defeat at the hands of other rebel groups, including ones backed by the CIA. Shiite militias backed and in some cases directed by Iran have played an important role in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, but have had m Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council official in the George W. BushWhite House, said that Trump’s position—which fits Trump’s broader view that the U.S. should avoid Middle East entanglements—has a surface appeal but ultimately does not make sense. "In theory, this is not an irresponsible position,” Feaver said, noting that the U.S. forged an “alliance of convenience” with Russian dictator Josef Stalin during World War II. “In practice, however, it is fatally flawed,” Feaver added, noting that all three countries are waging brutal assaults on Sunni groups in Syria that are likely to fuel long-term extremism. “So while there might be a few narrow tactical scenarios where the United States can coordinate with one or other of these in a short-term tactical engagement against an ISIS outpost, in the larger war against ISIS they are not reliable partners,” Feaver said. Some conservatives argued that Trump’s position echoes current U.S. policy. Secretary of State John Kerry recently struck a cease-fire agreement with Russia under which the U.S. and Russia would coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and the Al Qaeda-aligned Front for the Conquest of Syria, known until recently as Jabhat al-Nusra. “We should also note that, while unstated, this unholy reliance on Iran and Russia has, in essence, been Obama policy,” Pletka said. “And look where that's gotten us.” “Trump channels Obama policy on Syria. ISIS the threat, Russia and Iran part of the solution,” the conservative foreign policy theorist Walter Russell Mead tweeted during the debate. The deal, which required that Assad halt airstrikes against civilian areas in places like Aleppo, quickly collapsed and the U.S. and Russia have cut off formal dialogue about Syria.