Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney sought this week to distinguish the foreign policy he wants to conduct from that of President Barack Obama, in part by calling for rebels in Syria to be armed with whatever it takes to bring down the Syrian regime.
No one should expect a major foreign policy shift in the final weeks of a presidential election campaign. On this issue, however, Romney was right — even if he wasn’t clear or forthright enough in making his case.
Events in Syria have deteriorated so badly over the past two months that many of the concerns behind the U.S. reluctance to supply the rebels with sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons have eroded.
Take the potential for the conflict to spill over Syria’s borders. Turkey has been lobbing shells into Syria. At the same time, it is engaged in an escalating cross-border war with Kurdish insurgents who have bases in Iran, northern Iraq and Syria. The Kurds have been emboldened by the turmoil, perhaps with encouragement from Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t appear to be itching to roll tanks into Syria, but the risk of a cross-border conflict is now significant.
The concern U.S. weaponry could intensify the suffering of civilians in Syria, without toppling Assad, also seems less urgent, because the casualty rate is already soaring. Syrian activists who have been tracking the death toll since the start of the fighting say 4,631 people died in September alone, bringing the total to more than 30,000.
It’s impossible to know how accurate such figures are, but the trend is inarguable. The fighting has reached a stalemate, and there’s every reason to believe the bloodshed will continue on a scale similar to Bosnia in the 1990s, when 100,000 people were killed over almost four years of civil war.
Syria, moreover, is in a much more volatile and fragile part of the world. Jihadists are crossing into Syria from Iraq to fight, and a flood of refugees is heading out to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said last month that to date 294,000 refugees had left Syria for its neighbors, a figure that will probably rise to 700,000 by the end of the year.
In his speech, Romney specified that arms should be given only to Syrian rebels who share the values of the United States and its allies in Syria. Given that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the main U.S. partners in supporting the rebels, it isn’t clear what values Romney had in mind. He also didn’t commit the U.S. to distributing the weapons. He should be more precise. The values that will help Syria are not Saudi ones, and Qatar and Saudi Arabia may well hand weapons to militant Islamists the U.S. would want to avoid arming.
As we’ve said before, the United States should distribute the weapons itself. It should seek out rebel units that have signed on to a code of conduct that is already circulating and are willing to commit to an inclusive regime to follow Assad’s. Six months ago, the U.S. knew virtually nothing about these people. Since then, it has been delivering nonlethal aid to the rebels, and we share the widely held assumption that the unstated purpose was to get intelligence officers on the ground to find out more.
Delivering arms would involve a significant escalation of that covert operation, one that should put special forces from the U.S. and its European and Turkish allies in Syria to train rebels to use the weapons. Expanding that distribution network could begin even before the Nov. 6 U.S. election, with the move from nonlethal to lethal aid to follow.
Inevitably, the road to further involvement by the U.S. and its allies would then be open. We remain opposed to creating a so-called safe zone in northern Syria, but the planning required should go forward. The Syrian conflict has to be brought under control and efforts to do so must encompass the potential for a larger U.S. involvement in Syria.
The question for the U.S. now is whether it wants to become embroiled in yet another Middle Eastern war — one with stakes so high that it could produce a direct confrontation with Russia, a nuclear power that runs a naval port in Syria, or an attempted closing of the Strait of Hormuz by Syria’s allies in Iran.
Once Congress reconvenes, and whoever wins the election, it would be smart to take any proposals to arm the opposition to the nation’s legislators for their support. Arming Syria’s rebels with high-end weaponry is a decision that the U.S. should take collectively and with eyes wide open as to where it may lead. A campaign speech won’t suffice for that.