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White House, Cabinet Split on What to Do About Civil War in Syria

February 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Should the U.S. arm Syrian rebels? Ray Suarez examines a growing rift between the White House and members of the president's Cabinet over what should be done about the Syrian conflict with Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Vali Nasr of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to the civil war in Syria, where activists say rebels clashed with government troops in Damascus and shut down a highway out of the capital.

Meanwhile, in Washington, there are new revelations of a split within the Obama administration about what should be done about the conflict.

Ray Suarez reports.

RAY SUAREZ: It was a short moment in a long hearing devoted to another topic, and it yielded a surprising set of answers from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Arizona Republican John McCain asked about a report that President Obama rejected a proposal to arm Syrian rebels last summer.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Did you support the recommendation by Secretary of State — then Secretary of State Clinton and then head of CIA General Petraeus that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria? Did you support that?

DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA, United States: We did.

JOHN MCCAIN: You did support that?

LEON PANETTA: We did.

RAY SUAREZ: So far, the president’s judgment has been that things won’t get better with American arms. Instead, he’s warned the weapons might fall into the hands of extremist elements, a concern reiterated today by the new secretary of state, who was asked about the deliberations last year.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY, United States: I don’t know what the discussions were in the White House and who said what. And I’m not going to go backwards. This is a new administration, the president’s second term. I’m a new secretary of state. And we’re going forwards from this point.

There are serious questions about Al-Nusra and AQI, al-Qaida from Iraq coming in, and other violent groups on ground.

RAY SUAREZ: Those groups are among the most effective fighters against the Assad regime. They include Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. has declared a terrorist organization. But, last November, a top rebel commander in Northern Syria, Colonel Abdul Jabaar al Aikidi, told the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner the U.S. reasoning is a farce.

COL. ABDUL JABAAR AL AIKIDI, Free Syrian: This is an excuse used by the West not to provide us with any weapons and ammunition. We pledge to the international community that can help us that these weapons will be in safe hands. The West is directly empowering extremists by not supporting organized parties, like our military councils, so the young men go to other parties who have money and weapons.

RAY SUAREZ: Indeed, guns and money are pouring in from other sources, as Kerry pointed out in his confirmation hearing two weeks ago.

JOHN KERRY: There are a lot of weapons there. There are people in the Gulf, and you know who they are, who are not hesitating to provide weapons.

RAY SUAREZ: He, too, was questioned by Sen. McCain, who’s been urging American intervention for some time.

JOHN MCCAIN: I think you would agree with me that every day that goes by in Syria, it gets worse.

JOHN KERRY: I think you would agree with me that, whatever judgments you make, they have to pass the test of whether or not, if you do them, they’re actually going to make things better.

RAY SUAREZ: For now, the U.S. is providing what it calls non-lethal assistance. And with Panetta’s departure from the Pentagon today, plus Clinton’s last week and Petraeus’s resignation last year, Gen. Dempsey is the only known remaining advocate of arming the rebels still in a top advisory role.

For more, I’m joined by Vali Nasr, who served in the Obama administration State Department and is now dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

What were the main schools of thought? How did the camps break down in this argument inside the administration on what to do about Syria, Andrew?

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Basically, you have a discussion about Syria about all the different options. And it really comes down to this.

The White House was hedging. They really didn’t want to get involved in Syria. They have a firm policy to stay out of the Middle East and would like to pull back, at the same time, the agencies that deal with Syria and the problem there, which is growing and mushrooming, the State Department, CIA and to a certain extent the Department of Defense, all of which were throwing their hands up in the air and saying, we have to do something, we have to do something.

So the interagency got involved and the series of articles we saw this week came out in which Hillary Clinton, Dempsey and so son and also the head of the — former head of the CIA, David Petraeus, were advocating actually arming groups in Syria, which until now has been a no-go issue for the Obama administration.

RAY SUAREZ: This argument inside the administration, Vali, was kept pretty quiet for a pretty long time, wasn’t it?

VALI NASR, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University: It was.

Partly, it has to do with the fact that we don’t know how serious and how intense it was. The fact that the president was given a certain option and was told that maybe it’s a good idea if we intervene doesn’t mean that this was ever elevated to a status of a real serious discussion.

But, also, all the people who are advocating intervention also knew how difficult Syria would be. And, therefore, I think there never was the kind of enthusiasm we saw either with Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya when it came to Syria. And that created a certain amount of confusion, as well as a certain amount of reluctance to really explore what might be the possibilities for the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Sec. Panetta called what we are giving non-lethal aid. What is the United States doing in Syria, Andrew?

ANDREW TABLER: Basically, the United States is supporting the opposition politically, what they call SOC, or the Syrian opposition coalition.

But, by and large, the support is non-lethal in nature. What that means is, is that it’s political support at the U.N. with allies. There’s also humanitarian support which is funneled into Syria. But there’s a big problem with that. And that is 75 percent of the aid that we send in to Syria goes through the Syrian regime channels, because they’re the sovereign power there.

Well, large swathes of the country now are outside of the regime’s control. And you have millions of displaced people in those areas. So even though we are putting forward that aid and that assistance and that political assistance to the opposition, it’s not really getting into the hands that need it. And that’s also caused a lot of people to look at this situation and realize that, not only is it getting worse politically, but on a human level, it’s approaching catastrophic levels that are very difficult to deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: Approaching catastrophe, tens of thousands of civilians dead, the country, as Andrew mentions, divided. Is it too late for the United States to have much of a say in the outcome, whatever it is?

VALI NASR: Well, it is not too late for the United States to assess what its interests are and then explore in serious ways, how can it protect its interests and how can it avoid the worst-case scenarios from happening.

We have seen in these kinds of conflicts that you can let it go and you can let it go. The conflict is not going to go away. Only the amount of danger, the amount of suffering and implications for United States national security interests are likely to grow.

So, at some point in time, Syria is going to compel us to do something other than what we are doing. And I think, to Andrew’s point, I don’t think we’re doing much. I think, on the diplomatic front, we have hid behind Russia, and on the military front we have been fairly irrelevant to the flow of this conflict on the ground.

And we sort of have had this idea of a splendid distance from Syria, but we are not likely to be able to maintain that indefinitely.

RAY SUAREZ: But does that narrow your choices when you finally do decide what it is you have to do, Andrew Tabler, to fight that irrelevance, as Vali Nasr called it?

ANDREW TABLER: The problem is that when you get involved in a game late, you’re cornered. And you also have to intervene in ways you might not have wanted to do from the beginning.

So in the case of the Obama administration, very reticent to arm, very reticent to get involved with armed groups, but now we are looking at something very real, real threat of the use of chemical weapons, the possibility of a failed state and a divided state in Syria, and also a haven for terrorists. And the propensity for all of that to spill over its borders into the vital allies like Israel, like Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and so on, and then also into Lebanon grows every day with no end in sight.

RAY SUAREZ: But you both painted this dire picture, and in some ways a clear American interest. But with the departure of Sec. Clinton, the departure of Sec. Panetta, the resignation of Gen. Petraeus, are the non-interventionists really running the show, led by President Obama?

VALI NASR: Well, ultimately, the key decision-makers in American foreign policy are the same people, which is the president and his key advisers in the National Security Council.

And the issue is not whether or not the advocates in the State Department or the Pentagon are there. I think at some point the United States government and the White House has to make a decision that Syria is an actual danger to America’s national security interests. It is not something we can wash our hands from. And there are serious dangers and implications to the United States, and the president actually to ask his national security team for realistic options that then he can gather his team and debate and decide about.

There hasn’t, I think, been a serious debate even within the United States government as to what might be our three top options, what are the costs and benefits of each, and if we were to pursue one of them, how would we do it.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a legitimate argument that this destabilizes Turkey to some degree, an important country to the United States, and a NATO ally, Andrew?

ANDREW TABLER: Absolutely.

Thousands of Syrians go over the border into Turkey every day. And it’s very easy for PKK fighters, Kurdish fighters, to meld into those refugees, to go across the border and carry out terrorists attacks inside of Turkey. No government in Turkey can tolerate that. And they lash out directly and immediately.

And if that happens over time, with the PKK, for example, and its affiliated being backed by the Iranians and the Assad regime, you can really see the entire region becoming destabilized very quickly, or in fits and starts going forward. But either way, the risks to U.S. national security go up.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Tabler and Vali Nasr, gentlemen, thank you both.

VALI NASR: Thank you.