Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a very interesting exchange with Wyatt Andrews of CBS News yesterday. In it, Clinton suggested the opposition fighters in Syria are not a cohesive enough group to justify sending arms and that U.S. intervention on behalf of the opposition has the potential to indirectly aid al-Qaeda or Hamas. I’ve written about these issues here, here, and here. Here are some excerpts:
QUESTION: The Administration made a point this week of suggesting that if Assad does not step down, does not stop the violence, that the U.S. would consider additional measures. Talk to me. What are the additional measures?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I’m not going to go into that, Wyatt. I think we did signal that this kind of wanton violence is just unacceptable. There are countries that are much closer with a much greater stake in the neighborhood who are looking at what they might do. Obviously, we are talking with them to see whether they intend to take action and whether they need any kind of logistical or other support, but no decisions have been made.
This response leaves me pretty curious. It seems clear that, if the U.S. were to aid the Syrian opposition, the most likely route would be to do it through a third party, probably one of the Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This would be done, I assume, for the sake of deniability and to further remove any sense of responsibility for the ensuing consequences. We know Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly argued for arming the opposition and have actually become frustrated with the U.S. on account of their “inactivity.” Some such support is already taking place from over the borders of Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, although it hasn’t amounted to much. Many credible voices have argued that so-called “logistical” or intelligence support has been given from the U.S., but that has probably amounted to even less. Clinton denies this third-party support is taking place at the moment, although we can’t be sure what’s happening behind the scenes.
QUESTION: You’re suggesting nonlethal support? Or are you suggesting that the United States may support the closet backchannel arming of the rebels that’s going on now?
SECRETARY CLINTON: We have made no decisions to do any of the above. We are in consultations with others who are watching this as we are watching it, and trying to determine what more can be done.
Clinton then speaks to the moral and practical aspects of this push to arm the opposition:
QUESTION: When I go back to the plight of the folks being shelled and who are very plaintive in their requests of the international community to be stronger, the question is: How long does the killing go on before the additional measures you’re talking about kick in?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think, Wyatt, if you take just a moment to imagine all the terrible conflicts that go on in the world, we have seen in the last 15 years millions of people killed in the Eastern Congo in the most brutal, terrible, despicable ways. It wasn’t on TV. There were no Skype-ing from the jungles that were the killing fields. And I could point to many other places where governments oppress people, where governments are turning against their own people. And you have to be very clear-eyed about what is possible and what the consequences of anything you might wish to do could be.
I am incredibly sympathetic to the calls that somebody do something. But it is also important to stop and ask what that is and who’s going to do it and how capable anybody is of doing it. And I like to get to the second, third, and fourth order questions, and those are very difficult ones.
QUESTION: The U.S. has repeatedly said that it’s reluctant to support the direct arming of the dissidents. The U.S. has been reluctant to arm the dissidents. Why?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first of all, we really don’t know who it is that would be armed. We have met some of the people from the Syrian National Council. They’re not inside Syria. This is not Libya, where you had a base of operations in Benghazi, where you had people who were representing the entire opposition to Libya, who were on the road meeting with me rather constantly, meeting with others. You could get your arms around what it is you were being asked to do and with whom. We don’t have any clarity on that. We —
QUESTION: But what’s the – Madam Secretary, what’s the fear?…of arming the rebels?
SECRETARY CLINTON: First of all, as I just said, what are we going to arm them with, and against what? You’re not going to bring tanks over the borders of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. That’s not going to happen.
So maybe at the best, you can smuggle in automatic weapons, maybe some other weapons that you could get in. To whom, where do you go? You can’t get into Homs. Where do you go? And to whom are you delivering them? We know al-Qaida. Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaida in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?
So I think, Wyatt, despite the great pleas that we hear from those people who are being ruthlessly assaulted by Assad, you don’t see uprisings across Syria the way you did in Libya. You don’t see militias forming in places where the Syrian military is not trying to get to Homs. You don’t see that, Wyatt. So if you’re a military planner or if you’re a Secretary of State and you’re trying to figure out, do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, we don’t see that. We see immense human suffering that is heartbreaking and a stain on the honor of those security forces who are doing it.