Obama and Romney Want Assad Gone, But Rebels Who Could Take His Place Are Worrying


Last night's presidential debate featured a revealing exchange regarding the situation in Syria.

The President was quick to point out that he was wary of intervention (full debate transcript here): 

… for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step. And we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping, that we're not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or our allies in the region.

Obama is right to be cautious about supporting the rebels in Syria. Although Assad's military is conducting atrocities it does not necessarily follow that his opponents are saints. Syrian rebels have conducted their own mass killings and abuses. Aside from their violence the Syrian rebels can be characterized by their diversity. The rebels include media-savvy pot field burning "moderates", Kurds, Al Qaeda elements, as well as the Free Syrian Army. Each has its own motivations and goals, not all of them conducive to the outcomes Obama and Romney would like.

Romney made sure to put the Syrian conflict in the context of Iran and Israel:

Secondly, Syria's an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea. It's the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a — a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don't want to have military involvement there. We don't want to get drawn into a military conflict.

And so the right course for us is working through our partners and with our own resources to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a — in a form of — of — if not government, a form of — of council that can take the lead in Syria, and then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves.

Hezbollah is indeed involved in the conflict, siding with the Syrian army against the rebels (something denied by Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah). The group, which has been branded as a terrorist organization by the U.S., enjoys support from Iran and is influential in Lebanese politics, currently occupying 12 out of the Lebanese parliament's 128 seats and two of the 30 cabinet positions. While Hezbollah and Syrian instability are concerning, Romney's hopes of seeing a "council that can take the lead in Syria" are far fetched. Syrian opposition leaders have struggled to come together as one unit, and concerns are being raised about certain unpleasant groups  coopting the rebellion.

Both Romney and Obama made sure to state that they want Assad gone and a transition to take place last night, and expressed scepticism of military interventions. However, it is far from clear that the Syrian rebels would be able to offer a situation conducive to stability and peace were Assad to be removed from power.

A situation where Hezbollah and Al Qaeda elements are fighting one another sounds like one we should be avoiding entirely. Being seen to support either of these groups will have dangerous implications for the U.S. and our allies in the future.