Today's reading assignment is from Elliott Abrams, writing at National Review.com. He reminds us of a rather curious double-standard, now being applied to the Syrian opposition. While the Obama Administration was an early supporter of the Egyptian uprising (which overthrew Hosni Mubarak), and went along with NATO's military campaign (that helped Libyan rebels topple Mommar Qadhafi), the White House won't lift a finger in support of Syrian insurgents. As Mr. Abrams observes:
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?”
Ah, where to begin? As for those "dangerous actors"--the ones who might inadvertently benefit from U.S. arms delivered to the Syrian opposition--Mrs. Clinton's concern is selective at best. Very early in the Libyan revolt, various media outlets noted that elements of the opposition had clear ties to Al Qaida, but NATO's air campaign quickly swung into high gear (or what passed for "maximum effort") in that conflict. In fact, some wags suggested that U.S., British and French jets were providing "close air support" for AQ, but such fears were summarily dismissed at NATO Headquarters, Foggy Bottom and the White House. And, the same folks had no problem with the long terrorist history of the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped engineer the Egyptian revolution.
We're also amused by her comments about western intervention "expediting" a civil war. As we recall, Mrs. Clinton's husband championed a foreign policy that placed a no-fly zone over a civil war in the Balkans. Until the mid-1990s, allied air operations did little to deter the slaughter on the ground, thanks (in large part) to restrictive rules-of-engagement that limited strikes against the warring factions (read: Serbs).
In fact, the infamous slaughter of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, Gorazde and other locations occurred as NATO jets orbited overhead, forbidden to interfere with the genocide below. Indeed, historians will record that the civil war finally ended when allied air power was finally applied with sufficient persistence and strength to force regime change in Belgrade. So, you could argue that Secretary Clinton has it completely backwards--western military power could stop the slaughter (and with it, Assad's government) if Washington and its allies have the courage to act. But after a decade of war, there is no stomach for a new conflict in the Levant, leaving the Syrian opposition largely on their own.
As for the "Syrians" who refuse to stand up for their heroic countrymen, Mrs. Clinton's remarks are nothing short of fatuous. The reason more Syrian citizens aren't in the streets is because of what's happening in places like Homs. It's rather tough to battle a modern police state with little more than light arms looted from military armories, or taken from the bodies of dead soldiers. And, there's even less reason to join the resistance when the Secretary of State of the world's leading superpower is dismissing the idea of providing support.
This isn't the first time we've noted the administration's double-standard on Syria. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, various officials expressed home that Bashir Assad would prove a reformer, and even implement some democratic reforms. Three years later, the Syrian tyrant has proved that he is every bit his father's son, willing to slaughter his people by the thousands to maintain his regime. Yet, the administration refuses to take concrete measures that might hasten the dictator's downfall, and end the Syrian bloodshed, once and for all.
A rather obvious question is: why? Syria has become Iran's most important ally, and with it, contributor to various operations that have killed scores of American soldiers, in Iraq and elsewhere. Yet, Washington looks the other way while Iran pumps billions into Assad's security apparatus and proxies from the Quds Force and Hizballah murder Syrian civilians in the street.
And there's the real rub. For whatever reason, the Obama foreign policy team, including Mrs. Clinton, seems deathly afraid of challenging Iran. If we go too far, the thinking goes, we'll lose any chance to talk with Tehran on even more pressing issues, like the nuclear program.
Memo to the striped-pants set: Iran is prepared to do whatever it takes to preserve its nuclear program and its most important regional partner. Acknowledging those facts would be the first steps towards a rational policy on Syria (and Iran), based on the reality that regime change in Damascus could lead to similar events in Iran. Does this approach present risks? Obviously. With their backs against the wall, Tehran and/or Damascus might lash out at Israel, provoking a regional conflict that could go nuclear.
But our current policies present similar dangers. America's unwillingness to confront Iran is being interpreted (correctly) as a sign of weakness, further emboldening Tehran and forcing other regional players to examine other security options, such as obtaining their own nuclear weapons.
To be sure, there are few good choices in the Middle East right now. But getting behind the Syrian opposition is far from the worst. In fact, a properly-executed strategy could be a game-changer in a dangerous region, putting Iran squarely on the defensive and weakening its ability to dictate events in places like Syria and Lebanon.