By Amie Parnes and Jeremy Herb - 05/30/12 12:55 AM EDT
President Obama and Mitt Romney on Tuesday offered clashing views over whether to arm insurgents in Syria after a weekend massacre left more than 100 people dead and drew international condemnation.
Romney called for the United States and partner nations to “arm the opposition so they can defend themselves” against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but White House press secretary Jay Carney warned that would lead to more “chaos and carnage” and was “not the right course.”
It also offered an opening of sorts for Romney — who clinched the Republican nomination on Tuesday night — to hammer Obama on foreign policy, which has been one of the president’s biggest strengths during his time in office.
As violence in Syria has escalated, Romney has ramped up his attacks on Obama’s handling of the events.
“President Obama’s lack of leadership has resulted in a policy of paralysis that has watched Assad slaughter 10,000 individuals,” Romney said in a statement Tuesday on Syria, his second in three days.
Observers say the conflict in Syria provides “fertile ground” for Romney and other Republicans.
“Those are the first couple of volleys, and I think that’s what will edge the Obama administration to do something about it,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute who co-founded the first private English-language publication in Syria. “The Obama administration will respond to public pressure — it’s an election year.”
But on Tuesday, the White House — seemingly aware of a war-weary American public — didn’t appear to want to engage militarily in the conflict.
Instead, Carney said, the Obama administration would continue to give a peace plan by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan support and “hope the pressure on Assad has an effect.”
At the same time, Carney added, “We will continue to work with both the Security Council and the broader coalition of friends of Syria to place pressure on the Assad regime.”
When it comes to arming the rebels, there are concerns in Congress in both parties about who the opposition is and whether al Qaeda is involved, although those concerns have dissipated somewhat as the violence has increased.
“I didn’t hear an easy way forward,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who spoke to reporters on a conference call Tuesday during a congressional trip to Egypt and Israel. “There’s concern still about arming the opposition, who nobody seems to know very well, even in the region.”
The administration still has some diplomatic levers it can pull, including further sanctions against Syria to try to stanch its cash flow. On Tuesday, the United States expelled the top Syrian envoy to Washington as part of a coordinated effort by countries around the world.
One of the biggest diplomatic obstacles that remains is Russia, which has backed the Assad regime but joined the U.N. Security Council in condemning Syria this weekend.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that convincing Russia is key to finding an internationally backed solution.
“Russia has its own set of interests to protect, and it’s worth talking to the Russians both about what they want in Syria and what they don’t want in Syria,” he said.
Carney’s comments come a day after Obama — who campaigned on the platform of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — spoke about the “light of a new day on the horizon.”
“As commander in chief, I can tell you that sending our troops into harm’s way is the most wrenching decision that I have to make,” he said during remarks on Memorial Day. “I can promise you I will never do so unless it is absolutely necessary and that when we do, we must give our troops a clear mission and the full support of a grateful nation.”
Observers say Obama will keep up the diplomatic approach as long as he is able.
The administration “hates to see what’s happening in Syria, but the idea of another engagement is something they don’t want to contemplate,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.
In the middle of its election-year battle with Romney, Team Obama is conscious of an American public that would like to see the administration focus on domestic issues, including the down economy.
“The American public is very much pro-freedom, but after 10 years of war, the desire to help other people gain their freedom is a long, hard road,” Jillson said. “The country is tired of war, they know our pocketbook is thin, and the Obama administration playing the diplomatic game in Syria is the right way to go electorally.”
But critics of Obama’s policies in Syria say that the calls for Assad to leave power aren’t going to be effective unless they are backed up with action, something the administration thus far has yet to provide.
“Rhetoric alone isn’t going to change the Syrian regime,” said Michael Rubin, an analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “The Obama administration will keep bumping up against the same decision on the use of military action.”
Romney’s call for arming the rebels is just one step that could be taken to try to put pressure on Assad, and other, more hawkish Republicans have called for more action.
The Republican presidential nominee has not endorsed calls from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, to launch air strikes as part of an international campaign to give the opposition safe zones within Syria.
Rubin, who supports more action in Syria, said that Romney’s stance on arming the rebels feels like a political move.
“Romney’s policy is simply probably going to be to do the opposite of whatever Obama is doing,” Rubin said. “This election isn’t about foreign policy, and Romney is going to be a foreign-policy opportunist — not leading, but sniping from behind.”
Even McCain and other hawks say that the United States should not be committing troops on the ground in Syria, and that allied countries like neighboring Turkey should provide the forces if necessary.