Democratic candidates spar over US Middle East role
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Democratic candidates spar over US Middle East role

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Democratic candidates for the presidency sparred over how deeply involved the United States should be in the Syrian crisis.

In the latest Democratic debate, broadcast Saturday night from New Hampshire, front-runner Hillary Clinton favored a strategy that would eventually unseat Syrian leader Bashar Assad, while Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said that the main goal should be defeating Islamic State terrorists.

Sanders and O’Malley said seeking regime change left too many open-ended risks, as evidenced by the outcome of the 2003 Iraq invasion, which Clinton voted for as senator from New York and Sanders opposed. Clinton said leaving Assad, a client of Iran, in power posed too great a danger to the United States and its allies.

“The Iranians are getting more of a presence in Syria, linking with Hezbollah, their proxy in Lebanon, would threaten Israel and would make it more difficult for us to move on a path to have a transition that at some point would deal with Assad’s future,” she said.

New Hampshire is the first primary state, and is the only significant contest so far where Sanders, who is Jewish, poses a significant threat to Clinton.

The differences echoed similar fault lines that surfaced in the Dec. 15 Republican debate, where some, like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., favored greater engagement in the region and others, like frontrunner Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, supported an aggressive air campaign but opposed strategies that could lead to a ground war.

The debate also provided a platform for Clinton and Sanders to move beyond their squabble over the discovery that a Sanders campaign staffer had accessed secure Clinton voter information in the database of the Democratic National Committee.

The DNC suspended access to the database for the Sanders campaign, prompting Sanders to sue. By the time the debate started, the DNC had restored access to the Sanders campaign, and Sanders apologized to Clinton in the debate’s opening minutes, while calling for an investigation into how the data breach occurred.

“Not only do I apologize to Secretary Clinton — and I hope we can work together on an independent investigation from day one — I want to apologize to my supporters,” Sanders said. “This is not the type of campaign that we run.”