Presidential Foreign Policy Debate: What Obama and Romney Must Say About Syria

During Monday's foreign policy debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, Middle East policy will be front and center, particularly the conflict in Syria, which recently escalated to Lebanon.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

The Council on Foreign Relations argues that the longer the U.S. stands by without intervening in Syria, the chance of regional instability heightens. Friday's bombing in Lebanon proves just that.

All current intelligence points to Major General Wissam Hasan, intelligence chief of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, as the target of a car bomb that exploded in Beirut on Friday afternoon, killing at least seven other people. Hasan had been at the head of an investigation into the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon. Hariri’s death has widely been presumed to be the work of Damascus. Says the Telegraph, “No one has ever been tried for the [Hariri] assassination, but a UN-backed tribunal has indicted four members of ... Hezbollah.” Hezbollah in Lebanese politics is known to be controlled and backed by the Syrian government.

Hasan also recently uncovered a bomb plot which led to the arrest of Lebanese politician Michel Samaha, who has close ties to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and had been accused of smuggling explosives into Lebanon. This put him on the Syrian regime’s radar.

According to the BBC, “Mr. Hassan [sic] was regarded as an opponent of Syria within Lebanon's security services,” and his death is being attributed to Syrian influence in Lebanese politics. The leader of political party Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, outright accused Damascus: “The Syrian regime and its friends inside and outside [Lebanon are responsible]. Who else would it be?” Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri (Rafik Hariri’s son) has also accused Syria of masterminding the attack.

There is plenty of speculation that this attack is related to the civil war going on in Syria right now. According to the Guardian, Saad Hariri is facilitating Saudi interests in the Levant, including arming the Syrian opposition, and Hasan too “played a role in the Saudi effort to arm the Syrian rebels.”

Syria and Lebanon have a complicated relationship, one we’ve not been too keen to intervene in. (The U.S. hasn’t had a significant military presence in Lebanon since the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and our diplomatic relationship with Syria has been shaky.)It is not outside the scope of reality to see Saudi acting as a proxy for U.S. interests in the Middle East. The U.S. can use Saudi, working through Lebanon, to arm Syrian rebels, without being seen as directly intervening in the conflict. It’s no secret that the U.S. is hesitant to interfere directly; we’ve seen no drones as we did in Libya, and our direct support to the rebels has been minimal at best.

In addition to the Obama administration only providing non-lethal support, there have been reports of weapons falling into the wrong (non-rebel) hands. According to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, a Romney administration would open the pathways for more (and more lethal) weapons to be provided to opposition forces. How well such a policy will work, though, is dubious.

Even today, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on major world powers to intervene in Syria, but so far reports of humanitarian disaster have done nothing to sway the Obama administration from their sudden post-Libya non-interventionism. Will, somehow, this assassination — a sign of regional instability — be the straw that broke the camel's back, finally pressuring the U.S. to intervene in Syria?

It’s doubtful.

Firstly, no American personnel in Beirut were harmed. Secondly, an American intervention at this moment would be a stark reversal of current policy, which would create a huge, unmanageable unknown for Monday’s foreign policy debate between President Obama and former Governor Romney. Obama is already sure to come under fire for the bomb in Benghazi, Libya, and for his inconsistent intervention policies during both the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War. There’s no need for him to get heavy-handed now.

Obama’s policy in Syria has seemed to be “don’t rock the boat if there will be consequences,” and it’s been that way in Lebanon for a long time. Toeing the line at a press briefing earlier on Friday, spokesperson Victoria Nuland said “we’ve been concerned about increasing tensions inside of Lebanon, particularly sectarian tensions and tensions as a result of spillover from Syria,” but she declined to “prejudge before the Lebanese authorities have had a chance to declare themselves who is responsible.”

“Syria, we’re watching,” she seems to be saying. “But there’s not need to worry quite yet.”

After Monday's debate, and no matter who wins in November, it will be interesting to see how long it takes the U.S. to intervene in Syria — if it does at all.

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Audrey Farber

After graduating from some prestigious university somewhere, I worked for academic research, social justice, and arts non-profits in the U.S., Israel, Jordan. I formerly ran a collective blogging project and contributed to Middle East-oriented discussions around the interwebs until I gave up on changing the world. I usually believe in complete social revolution and I make it a point to flout every social expectation I encounter. I do this by living in the Rocky Mountains (for realz) and complaining about tourists, enjoying waffles for dinner, putting easter egg links in my posts, and wishing I was way nerdier. I also like to think I'm the funniest person you've ever met, which may or may not be true. I've also driven across the country by myself more times than I'd care to admit.

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