What would 'President Romney' do about Syria?
The same thing President Obama has been doing. Contrary to his condemnations of Obama's foreign policy, handling of the Syria crisis, and stance toward Bashar al-Assad, Romney would effectively have the same policy on Syria as Obama.
Judging from headlines, one might think Mitt Romney has a radically different approach to the Syria crisis than President Obama: â€śRomney slams Obama Syria policy, calls for arming rebel forcesâ€ť (The Hill) is just one example. As Syria continues to unravel, Mr. Romney continues to criticize the president â€“ even giving Mr. Obama an â€śFâ€ť grade in foreign policy partly for his handling of the crisis. Romney devoted much of his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev. Tuesday to lambasting Obamaâ€™s foreign policy.
How then would â€śPresident Romneyâ€ť handle Syria? Contrary to his condemnations, Romney would effectively have the same policy as Obama. The lack of specific alternatives on Syria in his VFW speech only underscores that reality.
Romney suggests that the president has done little except â€śsubletâ€ť the crisis response to Russia and the United Nations. Obamaâ€™s actions are even â€śemboldening Assad and discouraging the dissidents,â€ť according to the GOP candidate. On Monday, he told CNBC â€śI think from the very beginning we misread the setting in Syriaâ€ť and that â€śAmerica should've come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go.â€ť
But Romney himself hasnâ€™t laid out a comprehensive policy for Syria (nor has the administration, for that matter). A close look at the hodgepodge of statements from Romney and his advisors paint a clear picture of what his policy might look like if he were president.
On the most hawkish option, military intervention, Obama and Romney see eye-to-eye. They have both rejected misguided calls for a Libyan-style operation. Romney has publicly recognized the inefficacy of a no-fly zone, in opposition to members of his own party like Senator John McCain who continue to call for such measures.
In a GOP debate last November, Romney toyed with the idea of creating a â€śno-drive zone,â€ť but he has yet to mention the idea since. Even Romney confidant John Bolton, a hawk among hawks, recognizes the â€śremoteâ€ť likelihood of success for any large-scale military operation.
Diplomatically, Obama has largely pursued policies that Romneyâ€™s foreign policy team supports. Take, for instance, the US relationship with the Syrian National Council (SNC) â€“ the umbrella opposition group of mostly expatriate Syrians. In December of last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the council a â€śleading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful democratic transition.â€ť
Two weeks later many of Romneyâ€™s top foreign policy advisors signed an open letter supporting â€śdirect contactâ€ť with the SNC. The letter stopped short of calling for official recognition of the SNC, and Obama has thus far demurred on extending it due to questions about the groupâ€™s legitimacy among Syrians.
Romney and his team have also vocally supported sanctions on Assad. And, to-date, Obama has ordered rounds of targeted asset freezes and other economic penalties on the regime, which was already heavily sanctioned from Bush-era measures.
The only discernible difference between Romneyâ€™s and Obamaâ€™s stances on Syria relates to the issue of whether or not to arm the opposition. After the Houla massacre that left 108 civilians dead, Romney argued â€śwe should work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves.â€ť The statement was a rebuke to Obamaâ€™s reticence about providing arms â€“Â overtly at least â€“ for opposition fighters. But US intelligence operatives have been vetting rebels that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are arming.
Thus, under President Obama, the United States is working with like-minded countries who are arming the opposition. And, under President Romney, the United States would be giving the opposition arms directly. The policies may be distinct, but the outcomes are equivalent: Weapons get in the hands of Syriaâ€™s opposition.
In other areas where Romney has hammered the presidentâ€™s Syria policy, his campaign rhetoric would likely not translate into actual policy. One recent Romney statement chastised Obama for being soft on Russia, which has â€śopenly armed and protected a murderous regimeâ€ť in Syria. But Dan Senor, another Romney advisor, recently conceded that the United States has essentially zero leverage over the Kremlin on this issue.
Vladimir Putin may shift Russian policy toward Syria if Assadâ€™s grip on power continues to weaken, but he will not acquiesce to a harder line simply because Mitt Romney says so.
There is little any US president could do to persuade or coerce Russia to reverse its support for Assad. Itâ€™s this lack of leverage â€“ not just over Russia but in dealing with the crisis more generally â€“ that gets at the heart of why Romneyâ€™s Syria policy would look like Obamaâ€™s.
The United States can do little to stem Syriaâ€™s bloodshed right now. Opposition forces are gaining ground but remain fractious and ill-prepared for a post-Assad Syria. Al Qaeda is actively pursuing its own efforts to oust Assad. Perhaps most worrisome, the regime still has a substantial military capacity, including chemical weapons.
Thus, even a weakened Assad can turn a Western intervention â€“ or, the establishment of an â€śair-patrolled safe zoneâ€ť as some Romney advisors called for Tuesday â€“ into a drawn-out, macabre endeavor. Preparations to use the chemical weapons on Syrians and other extreme scenarios might induce a more forceful US and international response, but until then, intervention remains off the table.
These are all realities that Romney can ignore on the campaign trail but would have to grapple with in the Oval Office.
Andrew C. MillerÂ is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relationsâ€™ Center for Preventive Action. He can be found on Twitter @andrewmiller802.Â