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 Syria is a tough situation to grapple with. It is positioned in the center of Middle East hotspots, in between Israel and Iran; it is a long-time client state of Russia; 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.
While the Obama administration has argued publicly for months against arming the opposition, reports suggest that the White House and CIA are collaborating closely with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are secretly channeling weapons to rebels in Syria.
Apart from vaguely worded assertions, though, the administration has remained mum on such activities. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton instead said only that the U.S. is “coordinating our efforts with others who are also providing various forms of support.”
Such remarks feed the perception that the U.S. is letting others set its Syria policy, including regimes that support radical Islamist forces.
“One of the problems of leading from behind is that you get stuck with the agenda of those who are in front of you,” Mr. Rubin said. “And whether it’s in Egypt, Libya or Syria, the Saudis and Qataris tend to support the more extreme elements.
“If the Qataris and the Saudis are arming the Muslim Brotherhood, then basically what we’re doing is telling any more liberal or nationalist elements in Syria to get bent.”
At the same time, the administration fears that providing direct aid to rebels could mean military equipment ends up in the hands of truly unsavory groups.
Mrs. Clinton made reference to such concerns Monday during a visit to Turkey, where unease is mounting over the activities in Syria of the Kurdish Workers’ Party — also known as the PKK — which the United States, Turkey, the European Union and NATO list as a terrorist organization.
“We worry about terrorists, PKK, al Qaeda and others taking advantage of the legitimate fight of the Syrian people for their freedom to use Syria and to promote their own agendas, and even to perhaps find footholds to launch attacks against others,” Mrs. Clinton said.
The Romney campaign says those fears are a poor excuse to avoid leadership and argues that the presence of Islamists and terrorists in the anti-Assad coalition is exactly why the U.S. must try to boost other actors.
“Complaining that there happen to be bad actors in the opposition is not an excuse for why we’re not helping the good actors,” said Dan Senor, a Romney campaign adviser and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“We have basically been sitting on our hands for a long time waiting for the opposition to get better organized. The administration has come up with excuse after excuse all while more blood has been shed and Assad is still in power,” he said.
Mr. Senor said there are always good and bad actors, and the U.S. role should be to “make sure in a post-Assad regime that the good, the responsible actors have the upper hand” — something he said will take stiff American leadership.
“Is the Obama administration doing that? I don’t know,” Mr. Senor said. “They may be doing it now. But for a very long time they have been against it and we can only take them by their word. Our criticism is that they’ve chosen for a long time to be hands off — to not play this sort of role in Syria.”
Syrian instability represents too great a threat to U.S. security interests to be ignored, said Meghan L. O’Sullivan, an international affairs professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and adviser to the Romney campaign on Middle East issues.
She pointed to a range of concerns from the likely presence of chemical weapons in Syria to the impact that a widening conflict may have on Turkey, Israel and Iran.
“What happens in Syria has implications for the whole stability of the region,” she said, adding that the U.S. should be working as closely as possible with the opposition.
Others say the region’s volatility, along with the specter of Russian influence in Syria, is one of the reasons for the Obama administration’s non-aggressive approach.
“The worst-case scenario would be to enter publicly into a proxy war with Russia, with the U.S. pumping a lot of weaponry into the rebellion while the Russians continue to arm the Assad regime,” Mr. Gowan said. “This was the nightmare scenario at the start of the year that I think the U.S. wanted to avoid.”
As a result, Mr. Gowan credits the administration’s attempt to implement a two-track strategy.
“On the one hand it has maintained the diplomatic track at the U.N. even while being very frustrated by Russia’s opposition to any serious action against Syria,” he said. “On the other hand, the administration has been working, it appears clandestinely, with countries that are arming the rebels.”
He said the administration’s slow embrace of Syrian opposition forces last year was likely driven by concerns that an ouster of Mr. Assad might jeopardize the security of Israel, which shares part of Syria’s southwestern border. But that calculation has changed.
“Early on, I think the Israeli calculation was that Assad had been a fairly stable partner,” Mr. Gowan said. “Now we’re in a situation where the top priority has to be probably containing the conflict so that it doesn’t spill over into a wider regional conflict that puts Israel in danger.”
Specter of Iraq
Joshua Landis, a leading scholar on Syria who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, offered another explanation for the slow action: reluctance to engage in nation-building in the Middle East.
“Syria promises to be one big car bomb, with lots of militias and impossible-to-do nation-building,” he said. “So I think there are skeptics in the Obama White House, people who watched George W. Bush flounder around in the Middle East, who have decided that they don’t want to do that. So they’ve hid behind the United Nations.
“We’ve tried twice to nation-build in Middle East countries — Afghanistan and Iraq — and we don’t know how to do it,” said Mr. Landis. “We found ourselves struggling in quicksand both times because there wasn’t firm national ground under our feet.”
He added that “for all of Mitt Romney’s bellicosity on the issue, and his saying that Obama has made a mistake and so forth, my hunch is that Romney would not be a lot different.”
“America has nothing to gain from getting involved in Syria, and it has a lot to lose if things go wrong. And things are going to go wrong in Syria.”