Obama vs. Romney on Syria Policy; Election-Year Politics Make for Difficult Call amid Complex Civil War

Article excerpt


If killing Osama bin Laden, untangling U.S. forces from Iraq and fighting a bare-knuckle drone war against al Qaeda are the Obama administration's foreign policy triumphs, its biggest stumble may be its failure to produce an international solution to what has become an all-out civil war in Syria.

Many foreign policy analysts agree that the Obama administration has done little either to effectively plan for or to prevent the violent sectarian bloodbath likely to follow if, as they predict, the power base around Syrian President Bashar Assad begins to crumble.

The administration's posture has been one of nonconfrontation, feeding criticism among conservatives who argue that Mr. Obama is leading from behind in Syria. They said he yearns too eagerly to be a team player, relying on the United Nations for consensus building and trying to avoid a much wider military confrontation that could involve Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel.

Of course, the U.S. elections also play into calculations.

It would be bad electoral politics for the administration to be launching a new war in the Middle East just as the president ends his first term, especially when one of the clear foreign policy achievements of the administration was to fulfill the promise of ending the war in Iraq, said Richard Gowan, the associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

All sides agree that Syria is an awkward situation. It is situated in the center of Middle East hot spots, bordering Israel and Iraq; it is a longtime client of Russia and ally of Iran; and its complex mix of ethnicity and religion makes it difficult to predict.

The catch is that a Mitt Romney administration probably wouldn't do many things differently on Syria, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar focusing on the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute.

What the Obama administration is doing - what Romney ultimately would do - is hoping that the Syrian situation would take care of itself, he said.

What the administration has done is commit nearly $82 million in humanitarian aid to help some 146,000 refugees spawned by the violence. But when it comes to big-picture strategy, much of the administration's energy has been spent lobbying the United Nations to get behind a sanctions initiative designed to pressure Mr. Assad to resign.

The initiative has been blocked repeatedly by China and Russia.

Russia, a Syrian ally since the height of the Cold War, maintains an active naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus - its only base outside the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Obama has been reluctant - and Mr. Romney's rhetoric hasn't differed - to pursue an end run around the United Nations with a NATO-backed air campaign like the one that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi from Libya last year.

European backing for such a move also has failed to materialize, and analysts say it would be a much tougher task in Syria, given that nation's densely populated cities, far more capable military forces and volatile demographics.

Arming the rebellion

Tension already is spiking between Syria's disparate religious and ethnic factions. Mr. Assad and much of his inner circle belong to the Alawite religious group, which is friendly with the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

While Syria's minority Christian population also might align with the Alawites, the most powerful opposition forces are now split between nation's large Arab and Kurdish populations, both of which are Sunni Muslim.

The question of how openly and aggressively the U.S. ought to support those forces is one where Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney appear to disagree.

Mr. Romney has said outright the United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups, and campaign advisers assert that a Romney White House would take a more aggressive leadership role in the process. …