Obama and Romney’s empty talk on Syria
By Richard Cohen,
In the frantic search for bipartisan agreement in Washington, I can report something of a breakthrough. Although they will not admit it, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama agree on what to do about the Syrian civil war: Let the killing continue. So far, it’s working.
The number of dead is around 30,000, with hundreds added daily. A fair number of these are women and children. There’s a good deal of suffering and incredible physical damage, the usual ruins of war. All of this, by bipartisan agreement, can continue until the dictator Bashar al-Assad realizes that life can be so much better on the French Riviera. This, though, will take some time.
In his major foreign policy address, a tour de force of non-specifics, Romney hit Obama hard on Syria. “The president has also failed to lead in Syria,” he said this month. “Violent extremists are flowing into the fight. Our ally Turkey has been attacked. And the conflict threatens stability in the region.” Oh, so true, so true.
And what does Romney suggest the United States do? Does he recommend the imposition of a no-fly zone that would deprive Assad of the use of helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to bomb neighborhoods of Aleppo and other cities? I asked his campaign and was told no — not a no-fly zone.
So did Romney mean providing the Syrian rebels with anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons? No, I was told. Not that either. A Romney administration would basically facilitate the flow of heavy weapons, but from others — not a big help but more than the Obama administration is doing.
All predictions that the war would end quickly have been proved wrong. Assad has used the army, air force and domestic intelligence services on his own people — not, mind you, that he considers non-Alawite Muslims his own people. And all the predictions of what would happen if the West intervened have, in a paradoxical way, come true. They did so, however, without any intervention.
The war has spread. Turkey has become more and more belligerent toward Syria and even seems spoiling for a fight. Related fighting may have erupted in Lebanon — it’s hard to tell the cause — but ultimately Assad will start trouble there. (That’s Page 2 of the Syrian playbook.) Jordan is worried sick about what’s happening. It has had to take in countless refugees — one camp alone contains 9,000 Syrian women, of whom 720 are pregnant — and lacks the wherewithal on its own to cope. (The United Nations is helping.) Jordan, a monarchy imposed by the British, somehow endures, but I would not push its luck.
At the same time, the Syrian middle-class professionals who spearheaded the demonstrations that led to revolt are being shoved aside by jihadists who are more adept not only at killing but at securing weapons as well. No one, certainly not the United States, has control of the arms flow to rebels to ensure that the extremists don’t get what’s intended for others. If this continues to happen, these weapons — much like in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew — will ultimately be used by America’s enemies.
Much of this could have been avoided, had the United States come in early and decisively on the side of the Syrian rebels. Instead, Obama vainly looked to both Kofi Annan and Vladimir Putin to help end the war when he should have also been organizing an air campaign. That’s what did the job in Bosnia, Kosovo and even Libya, where the objective was to oust Moammar Gaddafi and head off a bloodbath. It worked. Just keeping Assad’s airplanes on the ground would have shown the Syrian military that it was saluting the wrong guy. Defections would have followed.
Instead, Obama let the situation drift and it has worsened. He had a chance to rid the region of a bad actor and have a Sunni — and anti-Iran — regime take its place on Israel’s northern border. That border now bristles with more than 33,000 Hezbollah rockets targeted at Israel.
Romney had strong words about Syria in his foreign policy address but tepid proposals. There is no substitute for American leadership. If weapons are to be provided, then America ought to organize their distribution. If a no-fly zone is needed, only America can do it. If someone has to create an anti-Assad coalition in the region, then America, not Turkey — the former colonial power, after all — is the one to do it. It was good of Romney to point out Obama’s lack of leadership on Syria. It would have been better if he had provided some himself.
Read more on this debate: Jackson Diehl: Obama’s greatest failure Fred Hiatt: No escape from the Middle East David Ignatius: Does Romney understand the Middle East revolution? Fareed Zakaria: A conservative schism on the Arab Spring