WASHINGTON – Judging from headlines, one might think Mitt Romney has a radically different approach to the Syria crisis than President Obama: “Romney slams Obama Syria policy, calls for arming rebel forces” (The Hill) is just one example. As Syria continues to unravel, Mr. Romney continues to criticize the president – even giving Mr. Obama an “F” 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. last Tuesday to lambasting Obama’s foreign policy.
Romney suggests that the president has done little except “sublet” the crisis response to Russia and the United Nations. Obama’s actions are even “emboldening Assad and discouraging the dissidents,” according to the GOP candidate. Last Monday, he told CNBC “I think from the very beginning we misread the setting in Syria” and that “America should’ve come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go.”
But Romney himself hasn’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 “no-drive zone,” but he has yet to mention the idea since. Even Romney confidant John Bolton, a hawk among hawks, recognizes the “remote” likelihood of success for any large-scale military operation.
Diplomatically, Obama has largely pursued policies that Romney’s foreign policy team supports. Take, for instance, the US relationship with the Syrian National Council (SNC) – the umbrella opposition group of mostly expatriate Syrians. In December of last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the council a “leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful democratic transition.”
Two weeks later many of Romney’s top foreign policy advisors signed an open letter supporting “direct contact” 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 group’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 Romney’s and Obama’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 “we should work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves.” The statement was a rebuke to Obama’s reticence about providing arms – overtly at least – 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 Syria’s opposition.
In other areas where Romney has hammered the president’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 “openly armed and protected a murderous regime” 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 Assad’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. It’s this lack of leverage – not just over Russia but in dealing with the crisis more generally – that gets at the heart of why Romney’s Syria policy would look like Obama’s.
The United States can do little to stem Syria’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 – or, the establishment of an “air-patrolled safe zone” as some Romney advisors called for Tuesday – 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.