Following Mitt Romney’s foreign policy address yesterday, we now know with some precision how long the Syrian civil war will last: Forever. The GOP presidential candidate threw some soggy words at that conflagration, sort of promising the rebels some arms — but not from Uncle Sam, thank you very much. Instead, the United States would work through others — Turkey? Saudi Arabia? — “to ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks helicopters and fighter jets.” What the United States will not do is either send arms itself or help establish a no-fly zone.
This approach is just a bit more than the Obama administration has been doing. In fact, it seems directed at an unstated policy of actually withholding arms from the Syrian rebels for fear of an Afghanistan-style blowback. In Afghanistan, the United States supplied the mujahedeen with Stingers, and while the CIA tried to buy back the ones that remained, some wound up in Iran and North Korean, to name just two unlikely tourist attractions. As for our erstwhile friends, the mujahedeen, some of them wound up as our enemies in Afghanistan. Blowback is an understandable concern.
The Syrian situation, though, is a collection of understandable concerns. A long war may engulf the region. Already, Turkey has been drawn into the fight. It’s just a matter of time until Lebanon gets its share of the action since starting trouble in Beirut is an old Syrian way of raising the stakes. Maybe Jordan will follow. This is not a stable region. All this might have been avoided had Barack Obama intervened early and made clear to the Syrian military that Bashir Al-Assad’s was going to leave. The number of military defections then would have been staggering.
By intervention, I do not mean troops on the ground. I mean a direct and forceful arming of the rebels, the institution of a no-fly zone and the application of air power as was done successfully in Libya. That got rid of Moammar Gaddafi in short order, and while it did not bring serenity and democracy to the country, it did what was intended to do — avoid a bloodbath and rid the country of its unbalanced dictator.
The lack of forceful American action in Syria has allowed the situation to fester. Romney himself cited 30,000 deaths — more than enough justification right there for an intervention. The protracted war — it started in March 2011 — has drawn in jihadists from around the Muslim world. The middle-class professionals who once provided leadership to the rebels are being forced out, and a bunch of guys we do not know and do not trust are likely to take over. Syria is a mess anyway you look at it.
But Romney, for all his tough-guy talk, has provided no solution — not even a plan. The war will go on and on, and the winner, no matter who it is, will either hate the United States (Assad) or owe it nothing (the rebels). This is not leadership. It is just hot air.