The Corner

America’s Duplicity with the Syrian Opposition

Can there be a group anywhere in the world today more disappointed in United States foreign policy than those fighting the Syrian regime?

On Sunday, just after the international conference on Syria held in Tunis, Secretary Clinton delivered her view of the current situation in a series of television interviews, conducted even as Assad’s regiments shelled Homs and added to the civilian death toll. Clinton used the occasion of Assad’s slaughters to smear the Syrian opposition, explain why they should not be armed — and then amazingly add the demand that Syrians step up their opposition to Assad if they are to be worthy of our help.

First comes the smear. To the BBC, she said, “We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and those who are on our terrorist list, to be sure, supporting — claiming to support the opposition . . .” With CBS, she went further: “And to whom are you delivering [arms]? We know al-Qaeda. Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?”

Second is the explanation of why it is futile. To the BBC, she said “I think that there’s every possibility of a civil war. Outside intervention would not prevent that; it would probably expedite it.” For CBS, she explained that “the problem for everyone is you have a ruthless regime using heavy artillery and tanks that are war weapons of the greatest impact against defenseless people. So there will be — and I’ve said this before — there will be those who are going to find ways to arm these Syrians who are under attack. But even if they are given automatic weapons against tanks, against heavy artillery, the slaughter will go on.”

Third was the complaint that Syrians — who have been dying by the thousands over the last year, refusing to stop their protests in the face of machine guns and tanks — are too timid. Clinton told CNN that “I think that the Syrian people themselves need to start acting on behalf of their fellow Syrians. Where are the people inside Syria who are going to demand that men, women, and children cannot be assaulted and left to die, given no medical care, no food, no water?” She was even clearer with CBS:

And what I’m at — I’m wondering is what about the people in Damascus, what about the people in Aleppo? Don’t they know that their fellow Syrian men, women, and children are being slaughtered by their government? What are they going to do about it? When are they going to start pulling the props out from under this illegitimate regime?

INTERVIEWER: You’re sending a message to them?


This is an amazing policy combination. First, she appears to argue that our intelligence agencies are so inept they cannot identify terrorists and cannot find any way at all to get arms to Syrians — as opposed to Palestinians from Hamas or other foreigners from al-Qaeda. And she appears completely oblivious to the argument that by failing to join or support the fight against Assad, we create a vacuum that Sunni terrorists may populate. Second, she suggests that precisely because Assad is using tanks and artillery to attack the population, we cannot aid them because our military assistance would be too limited. They are better off dying, this argument logically holds, than fighting back. Their bravery in fighting for the past year with such limited arms is to be rewarded with the complaint that the odds are just too heavily stacked against them. Then comes the coup de grace: After saying we won’t help, after saying that outside “intervention” would only lead to more violence or “civil war,” after noting the disparity of arms between the citizens and the state, she demands that they rise up. She was, she acknowledged, “sending a message.”

This policy is so devoid of logic and moral underpinnings that it cannot last much longer. Aid will get to the opposition, if only from Arab states, to counterbalance the massive support coming to Assad from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. Sooner or later the United States is likely to encourage, and even supply, help to the opposition. Our moral outrage at the murder of civilians is matched in this case by the strategic gains that will accrue when the only Arab regime allied with Iran and Hezbollah falls. But what a lesson this is teaching to those inclined to challenge dictators elsewhere.

And what a lesson for the Israelis, worrying about Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Clinton told the BBC that one reason we can’t act is that “we don’t have the United Nations Security Council approval, legitimacy, credibility that comes with the international community making a decision.” Israelis learned long ago that the “international community” will be happy to sit idly by while their nation is attacked and the Security Council is, as in the Syrian case, tied up in knots. If you want to see the case for Israel acting on its own, Clinton’s comments on Syria are enormously persuasive. Take care of yourselves, gents, is the only logical lesson to be derived. 

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.


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