May 31st, 2012
01:50 PM ET

Zakaria: Obama vs. Romney on Syria next steps

Day by day, it seems the world is watching the situation in Syria deteriorate, especially after a massacre in Houla over the weekend that left more than 100 people dead, half of them children.

Fareed Zakaria spoke recently with CNN's John King about the international efforts to stop the violence and what options President Obama has. Here's an edited transcript:

KING: I want to start with the criticism from the Republican nominee-to-be, Mitt Romney. He says there's a paralysis in the Obama White House when it comes to this. His adviser, Norm Coleman, has said that the president is hiding behind Kofi Annan, that he's too reliant that the Russians will somehow come in later and save the day. Valid points?

ZAKARIA: I think it is mostly political, to be honest, because most of what Gov. Romney is attacking President Obama for is a kind of unspecified lack of assertiveness, that we should be tougher and we should somehow force the Syrian regime out.

For example, contrast that with Sen. John McCain or Lindsey Graham, who are very tough on the president, but they have a specific course of action they are advocating. They are advocating military intervention. As far as I can tell, a pretty open-ended military intervention. You know, they may have certain conditions.

But in the case of Romney, it's unclear what he would do: being tough for getting out ahead. What does all that mean? At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, what tools do we have? And how do we use them?

President Obama has decided he's not going to use the military yet. He's using diplomatic tools and economic tools. And if Romney has a better strategy, we need to hear it.

KING: And so when you say what tools do we have and what tools do we use, I think - I don't think there's any disagreement that the Kofi Annan mission has failed, and some would argue - and I can't debate them - failed miserably. What other tools does the president have diplomatically?

ZAKARIA: Well, I think that the effort to try to get the Russians to stop shielding the regime are important. The Russians, obviously, are never going to cooperate.

But at some point, they might realize that the al-Assad regime's days are numbered and they better get on the right side of history. And they might want to reposition themselves in the right place. And that might provide an opening.

At the end of the day, I think you have two choices. One is to try and economically strangle this regime, which is, frankly, quite possible, because this is not an oil-rich country. The regime does not have an unending supply of cash.

KING: Do you see a viable military option? When you talk to folks at the Pentagon they say you'd have to have at least 75,000 boots on the ground. They're worried about a dozen or more depots with chemical and other weapons of mass destruction around Syria, a very complicated ethnic situation and a much tougher, stronger well-trained army than you had in Libya.

ZAKARIA: I think it's very tough. Because as you said, the Libyan case is quite different. Syria is about 10 percent the size of Libya with about three times as many people.

In other words, in Libya, you had vast swaths of territory where the rebels could hide. They could get re-supplied. That's why they were able to detach almost a half of the country or a third of the country and a major city, Benghazi, from which they could get resupplied, from which they could proclaim independence. Syria has no such geography, and as a result, notice that the Syrian rebels do not control anything. They do not control a town; they do not control a piece of territory. And so it's going to be very hard.

The Syrian opposition is quite divided, quite diverse, and in that mix, to say that, you know, Western no-fly zones would work when most of the butchery is taking place using heavy artillery and tanks, I think again it's more rhetoric rather than an actual action plan that would work.

Check out TIME column: The case against intervention in Syria

Topics: Mitt Romney • President Obama • Syria

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