Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, tells Newsmax that President Barack Obama appears to be “backing away” from his threats to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
He also warns that Obama’s inaction regarding Syria could embolden Iran — and make Israel more likely to attack the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites.
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Abrams is now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In an exclusive interview with Newsmax TV on Monday, Abrams was asked how the White House was dealing with the situation in Syria after confirming the use of chemical weapons there.
“They’re in a corner,” he says. “The president said some time ago it was unacceptable for there to be any use of chemical weapons and that all options were on the table to respond.
“Now it seems there’s been some use of chemical weapons and the White House is beginning to say, well, it wasn’t a lot, it was just a little bit, it wasn’t a major thing. It looks as if they’re backing away and one of the problems with that, of course, is the credibility issue, particularly as it relates to Iran.
“The White House is nervous about this, is worrying what to do, and even if they decide to act, then the options are not so great on exactly how to react.”
Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona have called for a “no-fly zone” over Syria.
Abrams comments: “You can do a no-fly zone without ground forces. You can do it from Jordan or Turkey or ships in the Mediterranean. I don’t actually favor that because the no-fly zone means you’re in a potential confrontation every day, day after day after day, and facing the loss of American planes and American pilots.
“I would have thought that if you’re going to try to punish the Syrians and prevent them from using chemical weapons again, the thing to do is a one-time strike. Maybe a cruise missile strike at one or two of their air bases just so they know what they’re going to gain from using chemical weapons on the battlefield. They’re going to lose more with the American reaction.
“These are the kinds of things the White House is apparently asking the Pentagon to think through and doing so with great reluctance. We’re in the third year of this civil war in Syria and it’s obvious there’s no taste in the White House for getting involved.”
As for the risk that a U.S. attack could spur Syria into attacking Jordan or taking other drastic action, Abrams observes: “There’s always the possibility of an escalation on the side of the Syrian government, but I don’t think it’s a very great possibility because they’re really on the ropes as it is.
“The last thing they need is actions that would bring more Jordanian or Turkish or American — or Israeli for that matter — action against them. They’re having trouble maintaining themselves in power right now. The reason they apparently chose to use chemical weapons is the same reason they’re using air power. They need it, or think they need it, just to hold off more rebel advances.”
Asked if there is a way to aid the Syrian rebels without helping the al-Qaida-affiliated forces among them, Abrams tells Newsmax: “This is a question that depends on how good our intel is and I would hope that it would be pretty good. That is, are there elements of the opposition, are there some rebels who have no relationship with al-Qaida who are, as we would view as, more moderate types?
“One of the reasons that I’ve been, and a lot of other people have been, critical of the administration letting this go on for two years is the jihadis are getting stronger and stronger and there are more and more of them. Estimates now are there are about 5,000 of the real jihadis, the kind that are linked to al-Qaida.
“And one of the reasons I’d like to see this war end, besides the humanitarian part, is a year from now, if it goes on, there won’t be 5,000 jihadis. It will be 10,000 jihadis. They’re still arriving.
“So that’s why time is not on our side if we would like to help the more moderate elements in the opposition, and that’s who we should be identifying and strengthening.”
Abrams warns that it may be necessary to deploy a United Nations peacekeeping force in Syria after the Bashar al-Assad regime falls.
After Assad is toppled, “there’s going to be a lot of revenge,” he says. “And the more this goes on, the more people are going to want to get vengeance. There are 70,000, roughly, dead already. I don’t think that time is on our side.
“In the post-Assad period, we do have to worry about vengeance between or among these various communities – the Shia, the Sunni, the Alawites, the Kurds, the Christians. One of the things I’d like us to think about is some kind of U.N. peacekeeping force, a force that could interpose itself between these communities and try to keep the level of violence down.”
Iran and other countries are closely watching the Obama administration after the president said the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” that cannot be crossed, Abrams also says.
“I do think he has to do something. They’re watching this really closely in places like Russia, China, North Korea, and especially Iran, because of the language ‘unacceptable,’ ‘all options on the table,’ [and] ‘red line.’ If it turns out that doesn’t mean much, you can be sure that the people in Tehran are going to just keep going straight forward toward a nuclear weapon.
“They’re also watching this in Israel because the president has asked them not to strike Iran, to wait and let us handle this. If they become convinced that ‘all options are on the table’ means all options are actually in the basement and are never going to be pulled out, that makes it more likely they will act.”
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