The Cable

Top Senators can’t explain Romney’s Syria policy

As the crisis in Syria deepens, top senators in both parties are unable to explain presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney's policy on dealing with the country's deepening civil war.

Romney, who leaves Tuesday evening on a three-nation foreign trip, barely mentioned Syria in his foreign-policy speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno, and then only as a criticism of President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia.

"I don't know what it is," said Senate Armed Services Committee member John Cornyn (R-TX) when asked to comment on Romney's Syria policy. After The Cable explained it to him, Cornyn said he needed more time to study the issue. Other top senators were similarly befuddled.

On his campaign website, Romney criticizes Obama for reaching out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the past but stops short of calling for any direct action to force Assad from power such as directly arming the opposition, as his surrogates like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are demanding, or establishing "safe zones" for the Syrian opposition, as many of his campaign's foreign policy advisors are calling for.

"Mitt Romney believes the United States should pursue a strategy of isolating and pressuring the Assad regime to increase the likelihood of a peaceful transition to a legitimate government. We should redouble our push for the U.N. Security Council to live up to its responsibilities and impose sanctions that cut off funding sources that serve to maintain the regime's grip on power," the campaign website reads.

But the Obama administration is already pursuing a more aggressive strategy than that, announcing this week that it is abandoning the diplomacy track at the U.N. and ramping up various levels of support to the Syrian opposition. CIA teams are also reportedly vetting rebels fighters and aiding in their efforts to get weapons from countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Administration officials say that increased communications and intelligence assistance is also on the way.

Romney has said repeatedly that the United States should "work with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition but has stopped short of calling for Washington to give the rebels direct, lethal aid. On July 19, after the U.N. Security Council again failed to impose punitive measures on the Assad regime following Russian and Chinese vetoes, Romney again criticized the administration's policy without saying what he would do differently.

"Russia's veto again shows the hollowness of President Obama's failed ‘reset' policy with Russia and his lack of leadership on Syria," Romney said. "While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations. Under this President, American influence and respect for our position around the world is at a low ebb."

On Monday, Romney told CNBC, "I think from the very beginning we misread the setting in Syria... America should've come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go. ... The world looks for American leadership and American strength."

On Capitol Hill, senior Republicans and Democrats alike were at pains to describe Romney's policy on Syria, much less say whether they supported it or not.

"I think we need to have a robust discussion about that," Cornyn said. "There's also the concern that Syria is much more difficult than Libya was, for example. So I think the discussions need to continue about what the appropriate response is. I'm interested in learning from others what their response is."

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who admitted last week that he didn't know what Romney's Afghanistan policy was, couldn't name any specifics of Romney's Syria policy Tuesday and instead launched into a monologue about America's role in the world.

"Syria is a really complicated problem in a really complicated part of the world and anybody who says you can have a Syria policy separate and apart from the rest of your foreign policy doesn't know what foreign policy is made of," Kyl told The Cable. "I know that Governor Romney sees the complexities of the world and appreciates the need to have a strong America that has the flexibility to act in complicated and difficult and very troublesome situations like Syria."

Kyl declined to say whether he supported arming the Syrian opposition or establishing safe zones inside Syria, or whether he believed that Romney was supporting either option.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said he supported the administration's efforts to facilitate the movement of arms to the Syrian opposition and he believes the United States should work with Turkey and NATO to establish safe zones for Syrian civilians.

But Levin could not say what Romney's Syria policy was or whether it was substantively different from what the administration is doing now.

"I don't know what his position is and his positions change so frequently, it's hard to keep track," Levin said. "That doesn't mean that he doesn't have one, or that he doesn't have two or three for that matter."

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable he has very specific criticisms of the Obama administration's Syria policy and very specific requests, namely that the administration use American military power to protect Syrian civilians and directly arm the opposition to help topple Assad.

"I'm pained every day that goes by and more and more Syrians get killed. We may be doing something through the CIA, but not a lot. Now the Syrians are using fighter plans and threatening to use gas," said Lieberman. "What I'd like to see is the Obama administration lead the coalition of the willing to go after the Assad regime directly, and I think that would end this pretty quickly."

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Cable

Conservatives call on Obama to establish ‘safe zones’ in Syria

Now that the Syrian opposition has established control over territory on the ground, it's time for the United States to help establish "safe zones" inside Syria, a group of mostly conservative experts and former officials said Tuesday.

"We believe it is clear that multilateral diplomacy and non-military pressure, by themselves, will neither compel Assad to step down nor ensure that America's national security interests in Syria and the wider region are protected," read a new letter compiled by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and sent to U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday, obtained in advance by The Cable.

"America's national security interests are intertwined with the fate of the Syrian people and the wider region," the letter reads. "The longer we wait to act, the more others with interests contrary to ours will fill the void, limiting America's ability to ensure a multi-sectarian pluralistic Syria. We therefore believe it is long past due for the United States to adopt a strategy that will help the Syrian people to quickly end the Assad regime and actively promote order and stability after the regime's fall."

The letter was signed by 62 foreign-policy hands, most of them conservative. The list of signees includes several former Bush administration officials, such as Elliott Abrams, Karl Rove, Paul Bremer, Robert Joseph, and Douglas Feith, and several advisors to the Mitt Romney campaign, including Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, Robert Kagan, and Stephen Rademaker. Radwah Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, also signed.

The signatories call on Obama to use military power to establish safe zones in already liberated areas of Syria to protect civilians there and to counter the threat of the Syrian regime using chemical or biological weapons.

"Such ‘safe zones' would serve as a destination for civilians fleeing violence. They would also provide the country's opposition groups-which have actively stood up to the Assad regime's relentless aggression, and bravely defended their cities, towns, and villages in the absence of decisive international action - a place to train, be equipped, and organize," the letter says.

The letter warns that America's inaction in Syria amounts to "complicity in oppression."

The safe zones would also help the United States and the international community coordinate and deliver nonlethal aid to the rebels and plan for the transition to a post-Assad government, the authors argue. A version of this idea was first proposed publicly by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter in February, and then picked up by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in March; critics say the zones would be difficult to defend from a concerted ground and aerial assault.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the administration's approach in a speech Tuesday morning at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

"As the Assad regime continues its bloody assault on its own people despite crippling sanctions, condemnation, increasing political pressure, they have found support, primarily from Iran, Russia, and China," she said. "More than 100 other nations and organizations have made clear that Assad must step aside in order for a transition to begin."

The Obama administration is supporting the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, which is compiling evidence of serious abuses and violations of human rights, and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, which is gathering evidence about the crisis, Clinton said. She also said the United States is increasing its aid to the opposition.

"This is a very complicated and difficult set of circumstances on the ground. And yet we know that the sooner it ends, the less violence there will be and the less chance for extremism to take hold," Clinton said. "But it will be unfortunate if indeed the Assad regime and those around him decide that it's an existential struggle for them and they will maintain and even increase the level of violent response."

Romney has not come out in favor of arming the opposition or establishing safe zones in Syria, but he has been highly critical of Obama's diplomacy at the United Nations and his administration's outreach to Russia on the issue.

"While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations," Romney said on July 19. "Under this president, American influence and respect for our position around the world is at a low ebb."

Read the full FPI/FDD letter after the jump:

Dear Mr. President:

The situation in Syria is, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said on July 18th, "spinning out of control."  Recent events make clear that the United States must play a more proactive role than it has heretofore in ensuring the end of the Assad regime and shaping a post-Assad Syria.  Even prior to recent high-level assassinations and opposition gains, Assad's security forces reportedly began to move chemical weapons out of storage, raising the specter that some of the world's most dangerous weapons could be used against the Syrian people or fall into the hands of terrorists.

We believe it is clear that multilateral diplomacy and non-military pressure, by themselves, will neither compel Assad to step down nor ensure that America's national security interests in Syria and the wider region are protected.  The Assad regime has repeatedly violated the ceasefire brokered by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, just as it disregarded earlier efforts by the Arab League.  Russia and China yet again used their vetoes on July 19th to prevent the Security Council from imposing more severe sanctions on Syria.  Meanwhile, Iran continues to materially assist the Syrian dictatorship's crackdown on its citizens, underlining Assad's importance to Tehran.

America's national security interests are intertwined with the fate of the Syrian people and the wider region.  Indeed, Syria's escalating conflict now threatens to directly affect the country's neighbors, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel, and could provide an opening for terrorist groups like al Qaeda to exploit.  The longer we wait to act, the more others with interests contrary to ours will fill the void, limiting America's ability to ensure a multi-sectarian pluralistic Syria.  We therefore believe it is long past due for the United States to adopt a strategy that will help the Syrian people to quickly end the Assad regime and actively promote order and stability after the regime's fall.

We urge you to take immediate steps, in close and continuing consultation with the Congress, to work with regional partners to establish air-patrolled "safe zones" covering already liberated areas within Syria, using military power not only to protect these zones from further aggression by the Assad regime's military and irregular forces, but also to neutralize the threat posed by the Syrian dictatorship's chemical and biological weapons.

Such "safe zones" would serve as a destination for civilians fleeing violence.  They would also provide the country's opposition groups-which have actively stood up to the Assad regime's relentless aggression, and bravely defended their cities, towns, and villages in the absence of decisive international action - a place to train, be equipped, and organize.  Indeed, "safe zones" would make it easier for the United States and like-minded nations to reliably provide critical non-lethal aid, including secure communications technologies and field hospital equipment, as well as self-defense assistance, to carefully vetted recipients.  "Safe zones" could also serve as a venue for U.S. and allied officials to work with Syria's future leaders to plan and prepare for a post-Assad Syria and explore options, such as an international peacekeeping force, that could limit chaos and sectarian conflict and prevent the proliferation of Assad's weapons of mass destruction.

America's continued inaction in Syria risks becoming what you called in your 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "complicity in oppression," and only serves to undermine our interests and embolden our enemies.  It is clear that the United States cannot outsource its strategic and moral responsibilities to cynical great powers, regional actors who do not fully share our values, or international mediators.  Only resolved U.S. leadership has the potential to halt the bloodshed and ensure the emergence of a Syria that advances America's national security interests.  We urge you to exercise such leadership immediately.

Sincerely,

Ammar Abdulhamid

Elliott Abrams

Fouad Ajami

Tony Badran

Paul Berman

Max Boot

Ellen Bork

L. Paul Bremer

Matthew R. J. Brodsky

Seth Cropsey

Larry Cox

Jack David

Toby Dershowitz

Larry Diamond

Paula Dobriansky

Mark Dubowitz

Nicholas Eberstadt

Eric Edelman

Douglas Feith

Jamie M. Fly

Reuel Marc Gerecht

Abe Greenwald

John Hannah

William Inboden

Bruce Pitcairn Jackson

Ash Jain

Kenneth D. M. Jensen

Allison Johnson

Robert G. Joseph

Robert Kagan

Lawrence Kaplan

Irina Krasovskaya

William Kristol

Michael Ledeen

Robert J. Lieber

Tod Lindberg

Herbert London

Mary Beth Long

Ann Marlowe

Cliff May

Robert C. McFarlane

Alan Mendoza

Ausama Monajed

Josh Muravchik

Meghan O'Sullivan

Martin Peretz

Danielle Pletka

Stephen Rademaker

Karl Rove

Kori Schake

Jonathan Schanzer

Randy Scheunemann

Gary J. Schmitt

Lee Smith

Henry D. Sokolski

William Taft

Daniel Twining

Kenneth Weinstein

Michael Weiss

Leon Wieseltier

Robert Zarate

Radwan Ziadeh