For all the bluster and bravado, accusations and denials over tapes and emails, there was a quiet but deadly serious issue raised in the second US presidential debate: what to do about Syria and, more broadly, how to counter Russia in that blighted nation and other places.
In the past few weeks there has been a steady deterioration in relations between the West and Russia:
- Moscow has suspended three nuclear agreements with Washington;
- Nuclear-capable missiles have been moved to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, putting them within easy reach of neighbouring Poland and even Germany;
- Three Russian warships equipped with cruise missiles have been deployed from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean; and
- US intelligence services say Russian hackers were behind the embarrassing email leaks from the Clinton campaign.
But it’s in Syria that the greatest potential for direct conflict exists between the US and Russia.
It is no coincidence the Russians have moved sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.
With the failure of the last ceasefire and the continuing destruction of Aleppo led by the Russian air force, the chances of a military conflict by design or mishap grow worryingly likely.
In the second presidential debate, Hilary Clinton continued to paint her Republican rival as a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And she was talking tough, supporting war crimes investigations against the Syrians and Russians.
“I’ve stood up to Russia. I’ve taken on Putin and others, and I would do that as president,” she said.
She repeated her plans to establish safe areas and no-fly zones, and ramp up unspecified “leverage” in any future negotiations with the Russian Government.
But how do you establish no-fly zone without Russian agreement? And Mr Putin, it appears, is in no mood to back down.
If a Clinton-led administration then insisted on enforcing its Syrian solutions, the uneasy distance maintained now between Russian and coalition aircraft could collapse into open conflict.
And then what?
The Russian leader knows his military manoeuvrings which have so alarmed NATO will probably not be met by an outgoing President Obama whose “red line” over Syria was no line at all and seen widely seen as exposing a total lack of resolve.
Judging by Donald Trump’s answers in the second debate he would be looking to work with both the Syrians and Russians against Islamic State rather than confront Mr Putin, a man he previously said he admires.
“I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS,” Mr Trump said.
Mrs Clinton could be very different. I say “could” because we really don’t know how far she is willing to go putting weight behind the rhetoric to counter the Russians who are testing the West’s defences and resolve on many frontiers.
Even NATO member Turkey has repaired its deep rift with Moscow, signing gas and even military deals in the last few days.
US intelligence services have accused Russian hackers of responsibility for releasing embarrassing emails from within the Clinton campaign.
This new cold conflict may not have reached the Siberian levels of freeze of decades’ past, but there is more than a chill in the air between old rivals.
And whoever wins, the next president of the United States will have a massive challenge on his or her hands.
Global peace and security may depend on the skill and determination of the next occupant of the Oval Office.
Tragically, whatever strategies are employed it may be all too late for who knows how many stricken civilians trapped and bombed daily in Aleppo and beyond. (www.abc.net.au)
By chief foreign correspondent Philip Williams