Much debated on the campaign trail, the question of if and how the United States will intervene in Syrian unrest (NYT) comes closer to an answer. The United States over the weekend pledged to send non-lethal equipment including communications equipment and night-vision goggles along with the $100 million Arab nations promised to pay opposition fighters.
On Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to pull troops and heavy weapons (AP) from populated areas by April 10, but U.S. officials remain skeptical. “We have seen commitments to end the violence followed by massive intensifications of violence,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. While Europeans favor a U.N. backed intervention (Reuters), U.S. voters are largely opposed to involvement beyond humanitarian aid, possibly leaving President Obama an even tougher choice on whether to intervene further.
GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney has come out in favor of arming Syrian rebels, stopping short of calling for direct military action. In a March op-ed, Romney said Russia was complicit in allowing the killing in Syria to continue, blocking international intervention from its seat on the U.N. Security Council. Rick Santorum’s campaign Web site says he would eliminate the position of U.S. Ambassador to Syria. Santorum has also said he would consider Libya-style air strikes against Syria but later said he did not have enough information about the situation.
Analysis and generals (NYT) have pointed out Syria is not Libya and that tactics that were effective against Muammar al-Qaddafi will not necessarily work against Assad. Unlike the Libyan leader (PopularMechanics), Assad has an effective intelligence service, arms from Russia, regional support from Iran, and a strong military with more extensive air-defense capabilities. The Assad family also has a much stronger support base in the region (HuffPost) than Qaddafi did in the waning years of his reign, says analyst Stephen Zunes. Syrian rebels are also not as organized as the Libyans, argues James Traub in Foreign Policy, leaving “no good solutions; only less bad ones.”
For more on the candidates’ stances, check out CFR’s Issue Tracker on The Candidates on Democracy Promotion in the Arab World.
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CFR’s Ed Husain says even with the cease-fire many questions remain about opposition unity, leadership transition, and whether it will be possible to keep the peace.
In Foreign Affairs, Daniel Bynam says creating a stable Syria is a long-term project, one that cannot be accomplished with Assad in power, but must be handled with care. “Washington knows that should the entire state collapse, it would usher in a horrific humanitarian crisis, and could bring along with it terrorism and even regional war,” he says.
The Brookings Institution says that it is in the best interests of the United States for Assad to be removed from power, but a failed Syria could be just as problematic as one run by a ruthless dictator. “U.S. policy must walk this tightrope, trying to remove Assad, but doing so in a way that keeps Syria an intact state capable of policing its borders and ensuring order at home,” says this memo, laying out a variety of options for regime change.
— Gayle S. Putrich, Contributing Editor