'US should arm Syrian opposition to defeat Assad'

US foreign policy adviser Abrams says Obama hesitant Syria because of upcoming elections but may be forced to act.

Syrian President Bashar Assad with his army generals 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian President Bashar Assad with his army generals 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
The US should either covertly or openly be arming the opposition forces in Syria, says Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush.
Abrams, in the country to participate in a conference on US-Israel relations on Monday at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan, said in an interview that while the humanitarian imperative for bringing down Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime was obvious, the strategic case was equally clear and strong.
“Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have to lose,” he said.
Abrams, who was responsible for pushing Bush’s strategy for advancing democracy, said an outcome whereby Assad remained in power would send the completely wrong message to every authoritarian leader in the region, The message, he said, would be that deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak made a mistake by not shooting at his own people, because had he done so – like Assad – he would have remained in power.
“We don’t want that message to emerge,” Abrams said. He also said the collapse of the Assad regime would pull Iran and Hezbollah down a peg.
Arming the Syrian rebels, thereby allowing them to take more ground, would have a big psychological and political impact, and could tip the balance in getting the Syrian business community “off the fence” and in support of the opposition, said Abrams, who in the 1980s was involved in the Iran-Contra affair to provide funds to the Nicaraguan contra rebels from money earned by arms sales to Iran.
Abrams, a Republican, said the Obama administration seemed hesitant to move on Syria now, just before the November elections, because it would run in the face of a central Obama campaign theme: that the “tide of war is receding.” If America gets involved in Syria, he said, that would undermine that message.
However, Abrams said. the level of violence in Syria is rising so fast that eventually the administration will have no choice but to act.
“You can’t have a massacre on CNN everyday and not do anything about it,” he said.
The Syrian crisis, Abrams said, has proven hollow a working assumption widely accepted just two years ago: that Turkey was the rising, dominant power in the region.
Turkey’s inability to do anything about Syria has shown that “it has no capacity to lead,” Abrams said. “They are not providing any leadership there.”
Abrams rejected the argument that it would be a mistake for the West to support the Syrian opposition because – as was the case that emerged after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya – it does not know exactly who it would be getting in Assad’s place.
Abrams said it was clear that what would emerge in Damascus would be a Sunni government that would not be allied with Iran and Hezbollah, and which – as a result – would take those two disruptive Mideast players down a notch.
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Abrams said he was not worried that jihadists elements would take control of post- Assad Syria, partly because those jihadists now involved in the struggle are not Syrians.
Regarding the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood, he said the group’s influence in Syria should not be exaggerated and is not anywhere near the group’s impact in Egypt.