WASHINGTON — As the world watches images of massacres in Syria, the two major-party candidates for president of the United States offer different approaches to trying to stop the bloodshed short of sending in U.S. troops.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney blames weakness on the part of President Barack Obama for the 14-month-old brutal crackdown by Syrian President Bashar Assad. Romney says he’d arm anti-government forces, a muscular sign of U.S. resolve that would help level the battlefield.
Obama rejects the idea of arming the Syrian opposition, his aides warning that those rebels could include groups that are friendly toward the al Qaida terrorist network. Instead, Obama is relying on diplomacy, backing a United Nations peacemaking effort while pressing Russia to use its influence with its ally in Damascus.
Syria looms as a potential political opportunity – or quagmire – for Obama and Romney. While it’s far down on the list of issues that voters care most about, it’s one of those trouble spots that raise anew vexing questions about the U.S. role in quelling violence in one of world’s most volatile regions.
The candidates agree on some points. Both want Assad out and both backed the expulsion of Syrian diplomats from the U.S. Neither supports direct U.S. military intervention, and both want to step up pressure on Russia to stop backing Assad’s government.
Moving beyond that, Romney is trying to use Syria to define Obama as weak.
“President Obama’s lack of leadership has resulted in a policy of paralysis that has watched Assad slaughter 10,000 individuals,” Romney said this week.
“We should increase pressure on Russia to cease selling arms to the Syrian government and to end its obstruction at the United Nations. And we should work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves.”
Romney, with many veterans of the George W. Bush administration advising him, says the U.S. should take more of a leadership role in the crisis.
“The opposition needs to have the ability to defend the Syrian people from massacres like that which occurred over the weekend,” Romney senior foreign-policy adviser Dan Senor told McClatchy on Thursday.
“The White House declares that any effort to arm the opposition will only further ‘militarize’ the situation. Gov. Romney believes the situation is already being militarized, including now with the direct involvement of Iranian troops and weaponry, and by increasingly horrific violence by the Assad regime.”
The White House disagrees strongly that it should be arming Assad opponents, saying that could lead to further chaos and carnage, while risking sending arms to people in Syria who back al Qaida or its affiliate al Qaida in Iraq.
“There are elements to the Syrian opposition that do not share the democratic ideas of the broad Syrian people – who are not necessarily friends of the United States,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “Those elements appear to us to be fringe elements. They do not represent the opposition as a whole. But we need to be mindful of that, and that is why we make these evaluations and assessments.”
The Obama administration said it was pursuing several approaches.
“We consider all contingencies at all times,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday. “I mean, we plan against everything in order to be prepared in the event that action is called for.”
At the moment, she said, the U.S. is “focused on supporting” former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s diplomatic efforts in Syria. Annan has promoted a six-point plan that includes an end to violence and negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents.
Clinton plans more talks in the next few days, “with particular attention paid to the Russians,” who, she said, “are just vociferous in their claim that they are providing a stabilizing influence.”
At the White House, Carney wouldn’t discuss future plans, including a potential quarantine to prevent Syria from getting arms from other nations. He praised Annan’s efforts, saying they’d had some positive effect, including a reduction in violence in areas where U.N. observers are in place and the ability to better report what’s happening in Syria.
But Carney noted that the administration remains skeptical that a cease-fire and withdrawal of forces can be achieved, so “that is why we are talking with our partners about other options and other steps.”
Carney would offer no deadline, only that “the window of opportunity here to allow for a peaceful political transition will not remain open for long.”
Obama and Romney’s stands can have subtle but important effects on voters. Obama can use his bid for restraint as a contrast to the Bush administration’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. A George Washington University/Politico Battleground Poll April 29-May 3 found Obama with a 51-38 edge over Romney for his handling of foreign policy.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor with no real foreign-policy experience, can use the Syrian crisis to demonstrate familiarity with foreign policy and show his willingness to talk tough.
Chances are the Syrian crisis alone will have little impact on the November vote.
“It’s part of the general Middle East turbulence,” and most voters already have formed opinions on how the U.S. should react to such crises, said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in New York.
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this story.