Both U.S. President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger in today’s presidential election, Mitt Romney, have repeatedly called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Neither appears to have a clear policy for achieving that goal nor have they explained what the future of Syria should be.
The situation is certainly complex. Syria is plagued by massive and overlapping problems ranging from sectarianism, Islamification and ethnic conflict to its relationship with non-state actors like Hezbollah and allies like Iran. Syrians want to believe that the crisis in their country is a high priority for the White House. It is important, no doubt, but by no means is it urgent for the United States. This is clear from the fact that the Syrian nightmare has dragged on for 20 months already.
The U.S. candidates seem to advocate different approaches. In their final television debate, Romney said he wants to ensure the Syrian opposition has the arms necessary to defend themselves and remove Assad from power. He argued that he does not think it would be necessary to intervene directly in Syria, claiming that America’s allies can do the job if given the right weapons. Meanwhile, Obama stressed the need to be very sure who the United States is helping before giving heavy weapons to the rebels. He criticized Romney’s stance on weapons, arguing that they could be used “against us.”
U.S. decision-makers fear unsolicited arms on the streets of Syria making their way into the hands of al-Qaida or Palestinian militants. A consistent argument has emerged in the U.S. press in recent months, focusing on the Islamist nature of some elements of the Syrian insurgency. Many within Syria argue that the September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens actually forced the Obama administration to re-think its policies towards Syria, as it raised fears over chaos in a power transition and the rise of radical Islamist elements in the Syrian underground.
“Obama and his allies have staged high-profile conferences and showered the rebels with praise but, until now, have fallen short of taking the pressure a step higher.” – Sami Moubayed, Carnegie Middle East Center
The Obama administration’s latest effort on Syria was putting together a new coalition, headed by former parliamentarian Riad Seif, called the Syrian National Initiative. The broad coalition, which will include all members of the Syrian opposition inside Syria and of the once-high-profile Syrian National Council (SNC), is meeting in Qatar to discuss the council’s future among other issues.
Referred to as the Riad Seif plan, the council initiative was developed with the help of the U.S. State Department. The council would be ready to work with a new U.S. administration as soon as it comes into office in January. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, a good friend of Riad Seif, is expected to attend the meeting in Doha.
Washington is clearly fed up with the SNC’s inability to unite the Syrian opposition or establish a firm base in Syria itself. Among other things, it has failed to attract Alawites into its ranks and is plagued by political bickering and high-profile walk-outs of senior members like Haitham al-Maleh and Bassma Koudmani. In May and July 2012, two SNC visits to Washington were called off at the last minute.
The Obama team views the new coalition as a potential interim government that can serve as a proper interlocutor for the international community and eventually sit down for talks on the Syrian transition with the regime itself. It highlights the Obama administration’s preference for a political solution in Syria rather than simply sending arms to the rebels.
Obama and his allies have staged high-profile conferences and showered the rebels with praise but, until now, have fallen short of taking the pressure a step higher. The international community led by the United States has failed – three times – at passing a U.N. resolution against Syria, thanks to a double Russian-Chinese veto. In Syria itself, the rebels are fed up with the Obama administration’s sweeping statements and lack of action. If the Riad Seif Plan carries real substance; that of course can change.
It had been hoped that the Turkish parliamentary election in the summer of 2011 would be a game-changer with the conclusive victory handed to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected to give him the impetus to put his firm words into action. When that did not happen, the focus turned to the French, waiting for President Francois Hollande to replace Nicolas Sarkozy. When nothing happened, hopes were pinned on Russia, saying that Russia’s position would change once Vladimir Putin returned to power.
Now all eyes are set on the U.S. election. Regardless of whether the incumbent Obama or Romney wins, both will have to deal with the reality of the Riad Seif plan, which the Obama administration will sign off before sealing its final, or first, term in office. Still, it seems unlikely that Syria will be at the top of either man’s agenda after November 6.
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Sami Moubayed is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He is also a research fellow at St. Andrews University in Scotland and a co-founder of its Syrian Studies Center.