Elliott Abrams asks a rhetorical question:
Can there be a group anywhere in the world today more disappointed in United States foreign policy than those fighting the Syrian regime?
Yes, there can be. If one wanted to take the time to list all of the groups that are more disappointed, there would be quite a few that qualify. What’s strange about this complaint is the charge of “duplicity” that Abrams is making, as if the U.S. has promised to provide a certain kind of support and then reneged on it. After Libya, administration statements that they are not going to do certain things to intervene in the internal affairs of other states don’t mean very much, so no one should rule out that the administration might eventually do very foolish things to involve the U.S. in Syria’s civil war, but that hasn’t happened yet. For the most part, the U.S. has not given the Syrian opposition any reason to expect any significant direct support. Last year, the administration was explicit that there would be no intervention in Syria. As Nir Rosen recently told Al Jazeera:
Having confirmed with US officials – and contrary to conspiracy theories – the Obama administration has not, until now, made the policy decision to aid the opposition on the ground, let alone provide it with weapons.
So where is the “duplicity” that is supposed to disappoint the Syrian opposition? It is nowhere to be found.
Specifically, Abrams is unhappy with Clinton’s recent remarks on Syria:
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.
By “smear the Syrian opposition,” Abrams means that Clinton acknowledged that Al Qaeda and Hamas have aligned themselves against the regime and with the opposition. In other words, she said things that were true but inconvenient for the simplistic narrative peddled by interventionists. Obviously, these groups are acting opportunistically and want to exploit the crisis for their benefit, but that makes it legitimate to ask whether the U.S. should want to encourage more instability that these groups could exploit. Clinton raised the same question that most critics of the “arm the rebels” mantra have raised: whom would the U.S. be arming? Abrams doesn’t have an answer to that question, so instead he fumes about Clinton’s acknowledgment of another inconvenient reality. Clinton stated correctly that funneling more weapons into Syria will make the conflict in Syria worse. Abrams has already made clear his interest is not in minimizing violence in Syria. Instead he would like the conflict to escalate for the purpose of bringing down the current government.
This was another Clinton statement that Abrams disliked:
I’m wondering is what about the people in Damascus, what about the people in Aleppo? Don’t they know that their fellow Syrian men, women, and children are being slaughtered by their government? What are they going to do about it? When are they going to start pulling the props out from under this illegitimate regime?
It is a somewhat odd statement. Presumably, people in Damascus and Aleppo are aware of the conflict in their own country. The recent protests in Damascus show that some of them are doing something about it. On the other hand, perhaps the reason most of them are not “pulling the props out” is that they fear the consequences of regime collapse? The U.S. shouldn’t be encouraging people to rise up against their government if it is not going to provide them with sufficient backing. To the extent that these remarks might be mistaken as a promise of future U.S. support, they were unwise, but otherwise they were an indirect acknowledgement that the regime is unlikely to fall so long as these cities remain largely quiescent.