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Top Democrat: We shouldn’t do anything in Syria right now

As Syrian tanks consolidated their hold on the restive city of Homs, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that the United States should not provide any direct assistance to the Syrian people at this time. Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke Thursday morning in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, ...

Office of Rep. Adam Smith
Office of Rep. Adam Smith

As Syrian tanks consolidated their hold on the restive city of Homs, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that the United States should not provide any direct assistance to the Syrian people at this time.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke Thursday morning in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, mostly about the defense budget and military acquisitions programs. The Cable asked Smith whether or not the United States has any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria and whether he would support any direct assistance there, be it humanitarian, medical, communications, intelligence, or even military support to the people under attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Smith said no to both questions. On the issue of "responsibility to protect," the humanitarian doctrine often cited as a rational for foreign intervention, Smith said it’s not a workable policy.

"There are a whole lot of people around the world suffering in a variety of different ways and it would be wrong to say that under no circumstances do we bear any responsibility for that … But there are more people suffering and more problems in the world than we could possibly solve or even come close to attending to," he said. "Do we say if there is suffering anywhere we as the United States of America have a responsibility to try and fix it? ‘No,’ is the answer to that question, because it’s a challenge we can’t possibly meet."

Regarding Syria specifically, Smith said there are just no good options, and definitely none that would make a difference without costing the United States too much.

"If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try," Smith said. "Right now I don’t see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."

Syria is different than Libya because the opposition is spread throughout the country, and doesn’t hold any territory, according to Smith. Assisting Syrians would therefore be logistically problematic, he said.

"In Syria, it’s a mess … it would be very difficult to act in the first place in a way that would make a difference," he said.

Smith also cited the lack of an international mandate for direct assistance in Syria.

"If that broad international support came together, you know, if there was a clearer military mission that could be achievable, I think it’s something that if I were the president I would be looking at every day," said Smith. "Is the situation changing or evolving in a way that puts us in a position to help? I don’t think it’s there right now."

Smith’s comments closely track those of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told The Cable in an interview Wednesday that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria or providing direct aid to the opposition in any way.

"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen said, arguing that any intervention mission simply wouldn’t have a high likelihood of success.

The Obama administration has clearly stated several times it does not favor any military intervention in Syria or providing arms to the Syrian rebels, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is interested in providing humanitarian assistance if the Assad regime consents.

The Cable also asked Smith what the U.S. reaction should be if Israel conducts a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

"We should have a policy, we should not talk about it publicly, because that would not help the overall situation," Smith said. "To state a policy that says, ‘If Israel attacks…’ will only fuel the fire and make people think ‘Well, [the U.S.] must know that they’re going to attack."

As Syrian tanks consolidated their hold on the restive city of Homs, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that the United States should not provide any direct assistance to the Syrian people at this time.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke Thursday morning in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, mostly about the defense budget and military acquisitions programs. The Cable asked Smith whether or not the United States has any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria and whether he would support any direct assistance there, be it humanitarian, medical, communications, intelligence, or even military support to the people under attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Smith said no to both questions. On the issue of "responsibility to protect," the humanitarian doctrine often cited as a rational for foreign intervention, Smith said it’s not a workable policy.

"There are a whole lot of people around the world suffering in a variety of different ways and it would be wrong to say that under no circumstances do we bear any responsibility for that … But there are more people suffering and more problems in the world than we could possibly solve or even come close to attending to," he said. "Do we say if there is suffering anywhere we as the United States of America have a responsibility to try and fix it? ‘No,’ is the answer to that question, because it’s a challenge we can’t possibly meet."

Regarding Syria specifically, Smith said there are just no good options, and definitely none that would make a difference without costing the United States too much.

"If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try," Smith said. "Right now I don’t see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."

Syria is different than Libya because the opposition is spread throughout the country, and doesn’t hold any territory, according to Smith. Assisting Syrians would therefore be logistically problematic, he said.

"In Syria, it’s a mess … it would be very difficult to act in the first place in a way that would make a difference," he said.

Smith also cited the lack of an international mandate for direct assistance in Syria.

"If that broad international support came together, you know, if there was a clearer military mission that could be achievable, I think it’s something that if I were the president I would be looking at every day," said Smith. "Is the situation changing or evolving in a way that puts us in a position to help? I don’t think it’s there right now."

Smith’s comments closely track those of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told The Cable in an interview Wednesday that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria or providing direct aid to the opposition in any way.

"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen said, arguing that any intervention mission simply wouldn’t have a high likelihood of success.

The Obama administration has clearly stated several times it does not favor any military intervention in Syria or providing arms to the Syrian rebels, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is interested in providing humanitarian assistance if the Assad regime consents.

The Cable also asked Smith what the U.S. reaction should be if Israel conducts a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

"We should have a policy, we should not talk about it publicly, because that would not help the overall situation," Smith said. "To state a policy that says, ‘If Israel attacks…’ will only fuel the fire and make people think ‘Well, [the U.S.] must know that they’re going to attack."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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