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Transition 2012

A guide to foreign policy and the 2012 U.S. presidential transition.

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Syria Update: Obama on an Election-Year Tightrope

by Newsteam Staff
April 17, 2012

A protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad at a mosque in Istanbul March 18, 2012 (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters). A protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad at a mosque in Istanbul March 18, 2012 (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters).


President Obama could soon be pushed into to an impossible position for an election year on Syria. Though a ceasefire agreement was reached weeks ago and was supposed to go into effect April 10, violence in Syria has continued and even spread, which could force the U.S.’s and allies’ hand on military intervention even though voters oppose it.

CFR’s Leslie Gelb in The Daily Beast says Obama is walking a political tightrope, “trying to simultaneously show strength and avoid war.” He says Obama faces the same predicament not only in Syria, but also Iran and North Korea, and whatever Obama decides to do will become political fodder for Republicans who, so far, “have found Obama’s foreign-policy record a near unhittable target politically.”

Steve Chapman at Reason Online notes that though Obama isn’t beating the war drums on Syria, “as we learned from Libya, that’s no reason we won’t eventually wade right in.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post is highly critical of Obama’s multilateral Syria strategy saying the administration has done nothing but “punt it to the United Nations, where the despotic regimes of Russia and China decided it wouldn’t do to support freedom-seeking people.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is in favor of arming Syrian rebels, stopping short of calling for direct military action. In a March op-ed, Romney also said Russia was complicit in allowing the killing in Syria to continue by blocking international intervention in the UN Security Council.

President Obama has so far pledged non-lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, but has not committed U.S. troops or weapons to the fight.

For more on the candidates’ stances, check out CFR’s Issue Tracker on The Candidates on Democracy Promotion in the Arab World.

Suggested Other Reading:

Pursuing negotiations with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, preferably with Iran and Russia at the  table, rather than explicitly threatening him, is the best way forward, say Asli Bali and Aziz Rana in a New York Times op-ed. “By relying exclusively on coercion through sanctions and threats, the practical effect of the current American approach has been to squeeze out all other diplomatic options and to make a proxy war (with local and international players on both sides) the only remaining possibility,” they say.

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria says putting a financial squeeze on the Assad regime is the best way to force change. “Money is what has allowed Bashar al-Assad to keep the Syrian army and the intelligence apparatus on his side,” he says. “It has also helped him keep a core element of the Sunni elite from turning against him. If the money flow to Syria slows to a trickle, you might begin to see defections from many of these key groups.”

A report from the Institute for the Study of War explains the sometimes tenuous ties within the grassroots political opposition in Syria and how the United States can best help them.

The world is failing the Syrian people, says Jerusalem Post columnist David Newman.

— Gayle S. Putrich, Contributing Editor

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