Appearing on CNN last night, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice urged caution about arming the Syrian rebels. The Obama administration has already suggested it will help its Gulf Arab allies do so, but yesterday the Pentagon walked back the suggestion, with a spokesman telling reporters the U.S. focus “remains on economic and diplomatic pressure.”
Rice told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the U.S. has less knowledge about the Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad than it did about Libyan rebels during that country’s uprising against the dictator Muammar Qaddafi. In the Libyan case, the U.S., through NATO, provided air support but didn’t directly arm the opposition. Reacting to a statement from Mitt Romney that suggested helping allies to arm the Syrian rebels, Rice said some advocates of arming the rebels had not thought through all of the consequences:
Wolf, even in Libya, we did not take the very exceptional decision to arm the opposition. And in Syria, we know much, much less about the nature of this opposition. It’s not coherent. There’s not a unified command and control. It’s a series of different groups in different cities. There’s, clearly, also an extremist element that is trying to infiltrate elements of the opposition.
So to argue that we ought to be arming the opposition is a very consequential statement. And I don’t think that those that are advocating that have fully thought through the consequences.
That would mean that we are conceding that the only option is to see the further militarization, to see an intensified regional war, which is hardly in our interests or in the interests of our allies and partners in that neighborhood.
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Rice’s words of caution were preceded by similar warnings yesterday from the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (MI), who told CNN: “I’m not sure arming is the right answer here, mainly because we’re just not exactly sure who the bad guys are and who the good guys are right now in Syria. So you don’t know who you’re giving weapons to.” Top U.S. officials have already acknowledged that they believe, for instance, that Al Qaeda in Iraq is behind some of the anti-government bombings in Damascus.
The proposed U.S. plan, which was at least publicly walked back by the Pentagon, called exactly for the U.S. to provide information on rebels who could be reliably armed. The original report on the U.S. plan, from the AP, said that “some intelligence analysts worry that there may be no suitable recipients of lethal aid in the Syria conflict.”