Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Syria: Everyone But Obama Wanted Action

by Elliott Abrams
February 7, 2013


It has emerged in the last few days that Secretary of State Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus wanted last year to arm and train the Syrian rebels.

The New York Times reported last weekend that

The idea was to vet the rebel groups and train fighters, who would be supplied with weapons. The plan had risks, but it also offered the potential reward of creating Syrian allies with whom the United States could work, both during the conflict and after President Bashar al-Assad’s eventual removal. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Petraeus presented the proposal to the White House, according to administration officials. But with the White House worried about the risks, and with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, they were rebuffed.”

Today we learned that the Pentagon also supported this plan. As reported in The Cable,

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were in favor of the plan last year advocated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus to arm the Syrian opposition, Dempsey testified Thursday.

So, every senior member of the national security agencies–the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the CIA Director, and the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff–favored action. And the president rejected this unanimous recommendation.

That is his prerogative, of course. One cannot escape the conclusion that electoral politics played a role, as The New York Times‘s phrasing suggests. That should be remembered, as should the fact of this unanimous recommendation, when next we hear White House explanations of why the United States cannot and should not act. “It’s too risky; we don’t know who to whom to give the training or arms; it might backfire; they don’t need the arms;” the excuses go on and on. But rather a different light is thrown on those excuses when we learn that if the president believed them, none of his top advisers did.

The Clinton/Petraeus plan was proposed and rejected last summer, the Times reported. In September the top strategist and expert on Syria for the State Department, Fred Hof, the Department’s Special Representative on Syria, resigned. It’s hard to believe that timing is a coincidence.

Hof has, since leaving the government after a long and distinguished career beginning with service in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, written a good deal about Syria.  Here is an excerpt from what he wrote last month in an article entitled “Syria: Is It Too Late?”

It might in fact be too late to save Syria from the diabolical ministrations of Assad and his enabling Salafist enemies….Yet even if one accepted, analytically, the “it’s too late to save Syria” thesis, and the argument that saving Syria was never something the United States and its allies could do, can this be the basis of prudent policy? If Syria, as now appears likely, becomes a death star of failed statehood, will the effects of its ravaged carcass on the surrounding neighborhood be so benign as to present no challenges to US statecraft far more perilous than those presented by Syria now?….Will Americans at that point look back with regret at our reluctance to try to shape and influence when we may at least have had a chance to do so?….

[W]hat if the arm’s length approach to the armed Syrian opposition is precisely the wrong medicine for a patient at or near death’s door? What if an approach seen by its advocates as the very epitome of prudence is in fact the opposite? What if the United States can help shape a decent, civilized outcome in Syria by providing security assistance to select opposition elements, and do so with no US boots on the ground? What if it can help in the context of lethality but consciously elects not to?….Syria’s fate will likely be decided by men with guns. If a firm, irrevocable decision is in place that the United States will not play in this arena, then it may indeed be too late for Syria as the Assad/al-Qaeda tag team crowds out all other opponents from the ring, making Syria ungovernable, 22.5 million Syrians vulnerable, and neighboring states fully exposed to a catastrophe that could persist for decades.

Every president has the right to disregard the advice of his all top advisers. Sometimes it is right to do so. Reading these words from Fred Hof, here the president was and remains tragically wrong.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Magy Roumanian

    If Obama avoids being involved he is very smart. As soon as syria war is over, west will have the same international brigades of islamists, Al Nusra, etc. involved and burning another place.. so, why not let them stay there a little bit longer, cause if not, they will rush on other fronts, fighting western interests. To think that you can have Al-Nusra as friend in the long term, is as wrong as believing in the ’80, that Osama Bin Laden will be a friend of America…

  • Posted by Palmyra2012

    The comment by Magy above is the most stupid comment I have ever read. It is because of inaction in Syria that extremists have appeared. The Syrians were completely peaceful for many many months before they started taking up arms, and even now after 2 years of genocide by the Assad regime, they have maintained so much control over themselves and extremists remain the minority. What would you do if you had your house demolished, your children killed, your husband butchered in front of your eyes? Are you supposed to remain passive and do nothing? What a shame on Obama that he has stood against the plan by Clinton and the CIA and cared more about his re-election, and is now choosing members of cabinet that are appeasers like him. In his appeasement policies he has allowed genocide to take place by a person who is as bad as Hitler! And shame on the media that has often chosen not to cover the horror of what was happening in Syria in order to go along with their governments’ policies! And finally, shame on anyone who supports Obama’s policy towards the Syrian genocide!

  • Posted by mike taub

    the name of “Iran” does not appear anywhere in this article.
    what remains is crocodile tears..

  • Posted by Steve

    Is this author capable of learning anything ? Having turned over Iraq to Iran, has he learned nothing? The people if Syria, the people, are overwhelmingly anti-American Jew haters. There is no force in the country which is deserving of our help or sympathy. A rebel victory, with or without US arms, is a Sunni fanatic victory – a victory of blood thirsty medieval minds. The last thing we need is an obligation to feed this lunatic asylum where every inmate has a gun. Please spare us any reference to your friends there. Have you not done enough damage already. We cannot afford this nonsense.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    It should surprise no one that this egomaniac wouldn’t take the advice of his four top , hand-picked advisors . This brings to mind a leader of 1930s-40s Germany who had the same problem .

  • Posted by Aaron Burr


    You may be right as far as it goes. Why should we keep funding/backing our spiritual arch-enemies? But then again, why should we follow through on a promise to Mubarak to provide F-16’s and tanks to the current Egyptian regime, with chance of a $$ payback dwindling as inverse to propping up the Brotherhood against legit democratic interests?

    But I digress. A more obvious reason for Obama’s passive aggressive non-involvements re: Syria’s existential problem contra suggestions by Clinton and Petraeus is that Syria is Russia’s client, and Obama may be pursuing detente’ anew. In such a way, images of historic American “colonizations” are not then rekindled; rather whatever it takes to neuter the possibility of expansionist capitalism from the US, notwithstanding that Russia and China are doing just that.

    And to what extent is it believed in the White House that expansion of the Islamic Revolution is strategically desired as it tempers our own interventionist tendencies and thus makes America good as it has never been? And while on this thought, if the planes and tanks went to Egypt without strings, then no imperialist design is apparent.

    In short, who knows what thoughts and designs goes through the man’s mind, and what the motivations for those thoughts and designs are? Magy, your thesis is safer then this but assumes that our leader is done “transforming” or re-educating Americans sufficiently.

  • Posted by rc

    So much of what is wrong in the Middle East can be laid directly in the hands of the old colonial powers and American hegemony. The comments are simply breathtaking. That so many of us could be so dumb about America’s shameful role in destabilizing so many of the countries in the Middle East, including Syria, is an atrocity in itself. I wonder how many of you would last as the beacons of moral virtue if foreign invaders came to America and set up military bases and proceeded to run the country through proxies.

  • Posted by Ed Jazairi

    Sir/Madam: Syria is not Lebanon, not Libya, not Iraq not the Balkan States. Syria is a swim away from Europe. People can take a ferry from Latakia Syria and reach Cypress, a European country, in less than two hours. Damascus, the capital of Syria, is close to two hours from Athens, Greece. Three hours flight time from Rome Italy, and less that four hours, flight times from Paris France and London England. Syria, is in the immediate back yard of Europe and the west. France, England, Turkey and other European countries must take the lead in resolving the Syria crisis. This include,but not limited to, having foot soldiers on the ground. This means an international mandate of the willing that will govern Syria for generations to come. The Syrian government of Assad and his company is not part of the axis of evil. It is the devil it self. The danger of syria exploding is not a local matter, but it will exlplode with international consequences to include a direct threat to US & European national security dimension. The west must look beyond Barack Obama and his currently minted adminstartion to fight against the establishment of Al-Qaida State in Syria before it is too late. Right now, there is no time to waste about taking action in Syria. Time is in the essence. World security because of Syria is at stake and the world must respond to it accorrdingly. This current US administartion must be shunned from the world stage and only history will decide on its morality or its immorality regarding the Syrian genocide.

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