Clinton Says U.S. Won’t Enter Syria, Sees Progress in Libya

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. won’t enter into the internal conflict in Syria the way it has in Libya, where the international effort to protect civilians from Muammar Qaddafi is progressing.

“No,” Clinton said when asked on the CBS program “Face the Nation” if the U.S. would intervene in Syria’s unrest. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s security forces clashed with protesters in several cities over the weekend after his promises of freedoms and pay increases failed to prevent dissent from spreading across the country.

Clinton said the elements that led to intervention in Libya -- international condemnation, an Arab League call for action, a United Nations Security Council resolution -- are “not going to happen” with Syria, in part because members of the U.S. Congress from both parties say they believe Assad is “a reformer.”

“What’s been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities,” Clinton said, referring to Qaddafi’s attacks on the Libyan people, “than police actions which, frankly, have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.”

Unique Situations

“Each of these situations is unique,” Clinton said, referring to the North African and Middle Eastern countries dealing with change and unrest, a list that now includes Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Bahrain.

Clinton was interviewed with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a round of Sunday television talk shows, taped March 26, as Libyan rebels moved into the central city of Ajdabiya, recaptured Brega in the east and advanced toward the strategic oil port of Ras Lanuf as U.S. and allied warplanes bombarded Qaddafi’s tanks, artillery and soldiers along the coastline.

Yesterday, rebel forces recaptured Ras Lanuf and advanced toward Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which agreed March 24 to take responsibility for the no-fly zone, yesterday assumed command of all aspects of the military operation enforcing the UN mandate to ensure the safety of Libyan civilians, including attacks on Qaddafi’s forces on the ground.

Support from Defectors

Clinton said defectors from the Libyan military and government are offering more support to the rebels, who, she said, are “not a well-organized fighting force.”

“But they are getting more support from defectors, from the former Libyan government military,” Clinton said on CBS. She said that “a lot” of diplomats and military leaders in Libya “are flipping, changing sides, defecting because they see the handwriting on the wall.”

Gates said on CBS that the U.S. was receiving “a lot” of intelligence reports that Qaddafi “has been taking the bodies of people he’s killed and putting them at the sites where we’ve attacked.”

“We have trouble coming up with proof of any civilian casualties that we have been responsible for,” the defense secretary said. Coalition forces have been “extremely careful in this military effort,” Gates said.

Gates told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the U.S. hasn’t made a decision about whether to arm the Libyan rebels. “The Security Council resolution would permit it,” Gates said, referring the United Nations Resolution 1973. “But no decisions have been made by our government about it,” he said.

‘Vital Interest’

Asked on NBC whether the mission in Libya was vital to U.S. interests, Gates said: “No, I don’t think it’s a vital interest for the United States, but we clearly have interests there and it’s a part of the region, which is a vital interest for the United States.”

Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the role of the international military effort in Libya is to weaken Qaddafi, and that doing so may help the opposition groups to dislodge him.

“He can be so weakened and so put in a corner that he’s unable to slaughter his own people,” the Michigan Democrat said. Asked how the intervention helps the U.S., Levin said, “There’s a democracy movement, and we should be on the side of that movement.”

‘Not at Stake’

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told “Meet the Press” that President Barack Obama thus far hasn’t offered a plan or objectives for U.S. involvement in Libya and that there should have been congressional debate on the issue.

“I don’t believe we should be engaged in a Libyan civil war,” Indiana’s Lugar said. “American interests are not at stake.”

Obama is scheduled to address the nation today about the situation in Libya.

Gates said that Libyan unrest had potential ripple effects for Tunisia and Egypt. Both countries have toppled their leaders and have been dealing with refugees fleeing Libya.

“You had a potentially significantly destabilizing event taking place in Libya that put at risk potentially the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt, and that was another consideration,” Gates said, explaining the U.S. interest in taking action. Egypt, he said, is key to Middle East stability.

Middle Eastern Issues

While Libya dominated the interviews with ABC, CBS and NBC, Gates and Clinton were also asked about turmoil in Yemen and strains with Saudi Arabia. Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud has sent troops into Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based, to help quell unrest.

Gates said on NBC that both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are concerned that Iran will take advantage of the regional turbulence. ‘We have a very strong relationship with Saudi Arabia,’’ Gates said.

“Do we have some differences of view? Absolutely,” he said. “But that happens between friends all the time.”

The potential fall of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a “real concern” for the U.S., Gates said on ABC, “because the most active and, at this point, perhaps the most aggressive branch of al-Qaeda -- al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- operates out of Yemen.”

The protest movement against Saleh has grown in momentum since March 18, when police and snipers killed 46 protesters in the capital in the worst violence since the unrest began two months ago.

‘Additional Challenges’

Gates said Saleh and his security services have given the U.S. “a lot” of counterterrorism cooperation. “If that government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then we’ll face additional challenges out of Yemen, there’s no question about it,” Gates said. “It’s a real problem.”

Even as the defense secretary said the military is planning to scale back its role in Libya, he stressed that it will continue to play a role there.

“As long as there is a no-fly zone and we have some unique capabilities to bring to bear -- for example, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, some tanking ability -- we will continue to have a presence,” Gates said.

Clinton called international action on Libya a “watershed moment in international decision-making” on ABC.

International cooperation took place in “record time,” Clinton said, adding that the 1990s bloodshed in places like Rwanda, the Balkans and Kosovo taught the world the dangers of delay. “I’ve never seen anything like it, where the world spoke so unequivocally,” she said.

The U.S. is “nowhere near” negotiating Qaddafi’s departure, Clinton told NBC. A United Nations envoy will work with Qaddafi and those around him, she said. That envoy will deliver a message to Qaddafi loyalists, said Clinton, who framed that message in two questions: “Do you really want to be a pariah? Do you really want to end up in the international court?” -- a reference to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Gates said on NBC that “one should not underestimate the possibility of the regime itself cracking.”

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