Syria’s rebels are hoping that Romney wins today:
Yet as Syria’s upheaval nears the two-year mark, many of those who are increasingly desperate for a foreign intervention to end the conflict now reference Iraq as a seemingly positive example of why America might decide to help. With an eye on the US elections, they say they hope the party that brought them the Iraq war might also bring America to Syria [bold mine-DL].
“The Republicans prefer using the military. Like Bush, he entered Iraq and Afghanistan. They use the military in all cases so maybe they will try to intervene here,” says Mustafa Abu Abdu, who used to be a psychology student before the war. “Obama will keep saying that [President Bashar] Assad must stop and that America is sorry about civilian deaths, but he will not do anything to help here.”
There are some reasons to think that Romney would be more likely to favor direct military intervention in Syria in the future, but even if Romney were to win I think the Syrian opposition would be unpleasantly surprised in the near term. The political obstacles to direct intervention haven’t changed, and the prospect of any sort of prolonged, ill-defined involvement in another country’s conflict is presumably unappealing to the U.S. military. If Romney allows himself to be pressured into a Syrian war, which he very well might, I suspect that it would initially resemble first-term Clinton policy in the Balkans rather than the more abrupt decisions to intervene in Syria along the lines of Kosovo or Libya. He would be drawn in one step at a time rather than all at once, but he would eventually yield to the demands of the hawks in his party that he “lead,” which is their way of saying, “start an unnecessary war.”
As close as Obama and Romney are on Syria policy right now, it is telling that at least some in the Syrian opposition assume that the Republican nominee will be more inclined to start a war to support them. This is a belief that Romney and many of his supporters have wanted to discourage, but it’s a reasonable assumption. It is understandable that they would look to Obama’s opponent and expect more support from him because they consider Obama’s support to be very limited, but they are also discerning correctly that Republican hawks have typically been louder and more eager to get the U.S. directly involved in the Syrian conflict. While there are liberal advocates for intervention in Syria, there don’t seem to be as many of them, and most of them don’t seem to be quite so enthusiastic about it.
One complication for a Republican administration in making Syria policy would be related to the problems it would have in cooperating with the Turkish government on any intervention in Syria. Many Republicans dislike and distrust the AKP because of the current Turkish-Israeli relationship, and many are alarmed at the presence of jihadists among the Syrian opposition fighters. The same rifts inside the party that the Libyan war briefly exposed would likely open up again, which could sour Republicans in Congress on a Syrian war very quickly.
Isn’t it also possible that Obama will be pulled into Syria gradually in the same way that Romney probably would? It is, but it seems somewhat less likely for the reasons I’ve outlined before. So long as the Obama administration insists on international authorization for intervention, there won’t be a U.S.-led intervention because the U.N. Security Council will not endorse military action. Because of domestic politics and the limitations of its military, the Turkish government isn’t going to plunge into the Syrian conflict on its own, and its calls for more U.S. action will go unanswered. Unlike in Libya, there won’t be much European pressure on the U.S., especially when the European states that intervened in Libya were overstretched by that campaign and wouldn’t be able to contribute more effectively in a Syrian war. Extricating the U.S. and NATO from Afghanistan will presumably be a higher priority than trying to ensnare both in a new conflict, and to that end disagreements with Russia over Syria will need to be kept to a minimum rather than escalated.