Obama, Romney and leading from the front in Syria

By David Rohde
June 14, 2012

Next week in the Mexican resort town of Los Cabos, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin will meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Mitt Romney and his aides say that after 15 months of dithering on Syria, it is time for Obama to confront Putin on an increasingly brutal conflict that has left 10,000 dead.

“President Obama’s ‘reset policy’ toward Russia has clearly failed,” Romney said in a statement this week. “Russia has openly armed and protected a murderous regime in Syria, frustrated international sanctions on Iran and opposed American efforts on a range of issues.”

In an interview on Thursday, Richard Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, argued that the White House should stop naively hoping the Russian leader will end his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Since when is it the U.S.’s job to sublet its interests to an authoritarian leader in Moscow?” Williamson asked. “What world do they think they live in?”

Election-year hyperbole aside, the Romney camp is right. Moscow is not going to give the U.S. an easy way out of Syria.

From the cold, calculating viewpoint of Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, the Syrian conflict is actually a boon for Russia. For the last year, a former superpower that had lost virtually all of its relevance in the Middle East has been the focus of global attention.

“When you look at it from the Russian point of view, they have actually felt that they have a winning strategy,” Carroll Bogert, a senior official with Human Rights Watch who recently visited Moscow, told me. “They have forced the world to beat a path to their door, that they hold the trump card, that they are the most influential over the Syrian regime.”

And yet, Russian and the American views on Syria could hardly be further apart. In a world where technology should make facts clearer, delusions fester in Moscow. Bogert said some Russian media outlets have reported that the NATO bombing campaign in Libya killed 10,000 civilians. Western journalists and human rights groups put the number at roughly 70.

Some in the Russian foreign policy establishment admit that Assad’s forces are carrying out human rights abuses, but most Russian analysts accept the Assad regime’s claim that it is crushing an al Qaeda-backed Islamic insurgency. Most importantly, it is unclear that Moscow has the influence it claims over Assad. Instead of putting the Kremlin’s perceived power to the test and potentially failing, dragging out the conflict is in Putin’s interest.

Assad, meanwhile, is slowly escalating his attacks and betting that Washington’s tolerance will rise as well. The Syrian leader knows that a major U.S. military intervention is unlikely in an American election year.

“Right now, the regime is testing the U.S. resolve, slowly but surely escalating its violence to see if Washington responds,” said a Damascus-based analyst who asked not to be identified. “It’s been doing this for 15 months and hopes to go all the way. They believe they have much more to do on the scale of horror.”

So far, the Obama administration has adopted a series of easy – and often contradictory – approaches in Syria. It is letting Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar arm the Syrian opposition. At the same time, it claims to support a diplomatic solution.

The result is that the Russians believe the American support for diplomacy is insincere. And the Syrian opposition believes American officials are not seriously backing them. Meanwhile, Islamists are a growing force in the Syrian opposition.

In a telephone interview from Turkey this week, Mahmoud Mosa, a civilian member of the Syrian opposition said U.S. officials had pledged to provide non-lethal aid earlier this spring. Today, he is still waiting.

“They promised me they would provide us with communications and some medical equipment,” he said. “But it has not happened.”

In his meeting with Putin next week, Obama should set a deadline for one final diplomatic push. It is unlikely that it will happen, but the so-called Yemen option – in which Assad departs Syria as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left his country – should be tried.

After that, the Obama administration must finally make a hard choice – and take a political risk. It must either turn its back on the horrors the Assad regime metes out against its own people and be hammered by Romney, or use American air power to help Turkey and the Arab League establish safe zones in northern Syria.

The Obama administration must be willing to use force in Syria. The risks of inaction now outweigh the risks of action.

A bloody stalemate has emerged. As the opposition receives more arms, it is slowly gaining control of rural areas but unable to seize cities. Government forces and militia, in turn, have grown more brutal.

Bosnia and other conflicts show that the longer the fighting drags on, the more bitter the postwar divide. More important, as the Sunni-Shia fighting escalates in Syria, it is destabilizing Iraq, Lebanon and other neighboring countries. The risks of a regional conflagration are growing.

If a final attempt at diplomacy fails, American air power should be used to help Turkey and the Arab League create safe havens in northern Syria along the Turkish border. The use of force should be limited. No American ground troops should be sent to Syria. And no American military action should take place without the full support of the Arab League.

The creation of safe havens will save civilian lives and reduce the influence of Islamists in the Syrian opposition. It will show the Syrian elite that the Assad regime is finished. And it will end Putin’s perverse free ride.

PHOTO: Demonstrators hold an illustration depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Russia’s national flag and the Syrian opposition flag, during a protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Kafranbel, near Idlib June 12, 2012. REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout

10 comments

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“In his meeting with Putin next week, Obama should set a deadline for one final diplomatic push. It is unlikely that it will happen, but the so-called Yemen option – in which Assad departs Syria as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left his country – should be tried.”

This article is riddled with inaccuracies from top to bottom as the statement above shows.

Abdullah Saleh was a US/Saudi puppet. Assad is nobody’s puppet not even Russia. Syria is an independent state and this is the reason why the West is targeting it for regime change.

Saleh left but the US still maintains control over Yemen dropping bombs from drones now and then.

If Assad leaves, will the US accepts that Russia maintains its influence over Syria by hand picking a leader like the US did in Yemen? Please do not insult our intlligence by talking about “election” in Yemen.

Yemen is no model for Syria.

“The Obama administration must be willing to use force in Syria. The risks of inaction now outweigh the risks of action”

This is crazy. Why? This is the kind of irresponsible rethoric that was used in the days leading to Irak war.

Why the US? Because it has “air power”? The US has no historical connetion to Syria. In fact Syria civilzation has existed thousand years before the creation of America. Regime change has failed. The madness needs to stop now.

The US needs to mind its own business within its borders and stop promoting death and destruction in other countries to gain access to their wealth resources.

This time the world is watching. Things won’t be like Irak or Afghanistan and regme changers know that.

Ths is just ropaganda rethoric.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

@Fromkin:
“Syria civilzation has existed thousand years before the creation of America. ”

If the Syrians were still using the same weapons they used back then (weapons developed according to the level of cultural & economic development in THEIR civilization – therefore weapons they have perhaps collectively learned how to handle), then perhaps in that case we shouldn’t get involved. But we HAVE BEEN involved, and we ARE involved with Syria. Weapons created and developed in the West are being used to kill Syrian civilians and military personnel. Products are flowing across Syrian borders in both directions: they’re not on some distant planet – we ARE influencing this conflict, either for good or bad, whether or not we realise it – whether actively or through acquiescence. And no matter what flags they’ve been flying in Syria for thousands of years (Syria today is NOT the Syria of 2000-3000 years ago, either culturally or ethnically); regardless of all that, they are our brothers in the human race. It’s not good enough just to arm them all equally and then stand by on the sidelines, helping to stop them from escaping; while they all kill each other. Yet, as you have suggested, it’s ALSO not good enough, to send our soldiers into the middle of someone else’s quarrel, trusting that our own soldiers will always be “the good guys”.

We do need to work out a better way – NOW – rather than waiting out another five years of Syrian genocide (as in the Balkans, wringing our hands over every potential accidental death whilst the enemy callously kills as many as possible) before deciding that we need to get more involved.

The devil is in the details but let’s not delay any longer than we must…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

So Fromkin, do you think President Obama should just leave Syria as it is now? In an election year? Unless you miss it. Romney has already tried to exploit this issue in his favor.

Do you want to see a President Romney in the White House?

Posted by bryansg | Report as abusive

American leaders keep trying to reach accommodations with evil nations like Russia. Everyone should know that you do not negotiate with evil. Past time for the United States to let Russia know that it is not now a world power. Do everything possible to make Russia look like the loser it is.

-Never confer with Russia about international matters
-Treat Russia like a banana republic
-Limit diplomatic relations with Russia.
-Do not provide any type of aid to Russia
-Eliminate all favorite nations classifications
-Never ask Russia for permission for anything
-Urge other nations to do the same

The United States should ask itself, why should the nation become involved in Syria? What is the cost benefit?

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

@bryansg,

President Obama’s been elected to be the head of state of the great USA. Americans didn’t elect him to create or fix problems in others countries.

Why Syria should be America’s problem and not China’s for instance?

It’s not acceptable that any country should have the power to go in to another country and remove the head of state just because it doesn’t like him or because it has a suprior “air power”. It’s the law of the jungle which will be terrible for world peace.

After all if the US can do it, why not Russia or France or Germany or Japan, etc…? As you see, it’s a dangerous slipping slope which could lead to perpetual wars and anarchy…..

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

@fromkin

Do you really believe China, who has blocked further sanctions in the UN Security Council and refused to condemn the Assad Regime until the massacre at Houla will do anything, or is even capable of doing anything to stop the slaughter of children and civilians?

It’s not as if the US is going to go in simply because we don’t “like” Assad..the man is a brutal dictator who decided to shell, snipe and murder his own citizens. Pro-government militias are massacring families in their homes, shooting and knifing children, and you don’t want the US–the most powerful country in the world and the undisputed leader in military might to do anything? You want to leave it to the Russians, who are supplying Assad with weapons???

Nobody can do what the US or NATO can do militarily, no one has the technology, the weaponry and the skill to do what we do.

What are you even talking about? What is a slippery slope that can lead to perpetual wars and anarchy? Doesn’t leaving Syria to its own devices at the moment risk further destabilization of the region?

Thank god the French didn’t think like you do when they decided to provide the great USA with aid during our own revolution.

America should lead on Syria. It must lead on Syria. The slippery slope you so dread would only become slicker with a lack of US leadership in the international community. The isolationist policy you advocate is not only counteractive to our global interests, but extremely dangerous, shows as ignorant understanding of America’s role in the world and is simply foolish.

Posted by adbstern | Report as abusive

@Fromkin: Perhaps, but they’re already suffering from anarchy over there. In Syria there are presently two sides with strategically approximately equal hands, slugging it out with each other; and the people who are suffering are mostly the civilians. One particular side is plainly more guilty than the other side in causing the civilians to suffer. So what to do?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

The only thing making me pause here in recommending “action” is the general principle that you can’t enforce peace when neither side wants it. Putting “peacekeepers” in between the two front-lines is not a good idea in that situation. The only thing we can do, if General Mood is correct and if we interpret his remarks as neither side WANTING peace; the only thing we can do then is to send in our armies for a fixed (say 14 day) period, or persuade the two sides to agree another truce, to allow civilians to escape.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

I still don’t understand why the United States’ sending arms and aid isn’t a viable and positive step short of airstrikes, but more meaningful and decisive than “diplomacy.”

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

RE Syria:
There is an old cliche :The devil you know maybe better than the “don’t know”
Sunni’s and Shites around the world are killing each other,in part, becuase they are living in the past.Going beyond humanitarian aid may be counter productive.Just compare the results of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libys with our intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Anyone like any of the results
We had our bloody Civil War; unfortunately they are going to have theirs

Posted by ngc121629 | Report as abusive