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Middle East in US election (Part I): Iran and Syria loom in the shadows

In the final presidential debate, Obama and Romney took each other to task on foreign policy matters. But can either separate or solve the intertwined issues of Syria and Iran?

Bassem Aly , Sunday 4 Nov 2012
Debate
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar over energy policy during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y (Photo: AP)
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On 6 November, Americans will head towards polling stations in the 50-state country to choose between US Democratic President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney as the White House occupant for the coming four-year presidential term.

Yet for Arabs and generally Middle Easterners, US internal affairs do not count as much as the region's ongoing turmoil, especially the 20-month Syrian crisis.

At Florida’s Lynn University, Obama and Romney exchanged harsh words in the third and final debate before the presidential race on the nation’s foreign policy, attacking each other on experience and vision. Romney accused Obama of punting responsibility to the United Nations.

Others see it differently. Former director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies Gamal Soltan praised Obama’s ability to manage US international relations. “Obama constructs his foreign policy on concepts of collectivism and international consensus. Romney, on the other hand, still speaks about hegemony and power,” Soltan said.

On Syria, Romney believes Washington should identify responsible parties within Syria, organise them, and supply the arms necessary for them “to defend themselves." Obama, on the contrary, argues that while what is "taking place in Syria is heartbreaking," the US should not be premature in arming Syrian rebels.

The Syrian uprising that started in March 2011 as a wave of peaceful protests against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has turned into a year-long bloodbath and near civil war, causing the death of almost 36,000 and a refugee crisis that neighbours are struggling to cope with.   

The UN regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Radhoune Nouicer, told Ahram Online during a press conference in Cairo last month that women and children make up around 75 per cent of the "growing" Syrian refugee population.

The US so far provides humanitarian support for the rebels, but Obama believes that providing military backing could turn against Washington or its allies in the region.

Abdulhamid Mallas, an Egypt-based Syrian journalist, claims that Romney carries a firmer position towards Syria than Obama. He mentioned unconfirmed reports that Romney sent messages to Al-Assad, threatening to back his removal from power in case he is elected.

“Obama is vague. He prefers to act from behind the scenes and fears to be criticised,” Mallas said. He added that assistance offered to the rebels by regional actors such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is limited due to US pressure and disagreements among world powers.

“Greater military support to the rebels might shift the balance of power in Syria and increase their opportunities for ousting the regime,” Mallas said.

Others are against outside interference. Salam Al-Kawakbi, a Syrian political science researcher, said in June that the best solution for Syria’s domestic unrest would emerge from its domestic forces, which alone can restructure state institutions and pave the way for a new democracy based on respect of human rights and the will of the people.

“The Syrians only can build Syria,” Al-Kawakbi stated.

Meanwhile, on 20 October, The New York Times reported a possible breakthrough on talks with Iran, one of the Syrian regime's most supportive allies. The report was quickly denied by the White House.

Citing unnamed administration officials, the Times reported that Iranian officials had agreed to direct US-Iran talks over Tehran's nuclear programme after years of secret talks between the two sides.

The Iranians insisted that such negotiations wait until after the US election, when they will know who the next president will be, the report said.

In a recent article for The Wall Street Journal, Romney said that the US seems to be "at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. We're not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies."

Romney argues that the US would be in great trouble if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon and that Israel’s security would be compromised.

During the Florida debate, Romney said that Tehran is now “four years closer to a nuclear weapon" and that Obama has “wasted” this period without imposing tighter economic sanctions on the oil-rich state, warning that he would make sure that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be indicted under the Genocide Convention.

Obama, for his part, asserted that American’s diplomatic approach to the question of Iran, including tough economic sanctions, has been effective in crippling the country’s oil production, which has reached its lowest level in 20 years.

Sanctions, for Obama, should be given sufficient time to take effect before anyone resorts to military force. But he has also vowed that Iran will not succeed in getting a nuclear weapon on his watch.

“We should not get tricked by the words of both candidates; both are trying to avoid discussion of a military strike against Iran,” Mustafa Elwi, political science professor at Cairo University, said.

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