State Dep’t: Hillary Clinton ‘Knows There Are No Easy Answers’ on Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | August 12, 2014 | 4:14 AM EDT

President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (AP Photo, File)

( – The Kerry State Department on Monday pushed back gently against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticism of what she has called a “failure” to arm moderate Syria rebels early on during the civil war, a decision Clinton says helped to strengthen jihadists.

“She played a key role in our strategy when she was at the State Department,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told a briefing. “So she was deeply engaged in these issues from this building when she was secretary of state. She, more than anyone, knows how complicated and complex they are and that there are no easy answers.”

Asked whether Clinton’s remarks amounted to criticism of the administration’s policy over the past three years, Harf replied, “she’s been a key part of that policy, to be clear.”

“And look, it’s healthy and good to have discussions and debates about such important issues,” she continued. “We certainly believe that here internally, inside the administration. That would absolutely apply to these comments as well. So look, no one has all the knowledge on this or all the analysis on this, and that’s why it’s important to have this conversation.”

In her memoir published earlier this year, Clinton revealed that she differed with President Obama’s decision not to arm rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, but wrote that it was Obama’s call and she respected it.

She went further in a new interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, saying that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

“They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces, and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming,” Clinton added, alluding to support from the Gulf states.

Harf demurred when asked if she was “disappointed” with Clinton’s reported criticism of the administration’s foreign policy.

“I think Secretary Clinton served in this administration for a very long time and worked on very tough issues with many people in this building,” she replied, adding that Clinton “would be the first to say there are no easy answers.”

Harf in her comments also blamed the Assad regime for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), the group now causing havoc in both Syria and Iraq. She said nothing about the alleged support the terrorists receive from sympathizers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia; or about Turkey’s alleged role in allowing jihadist fighters from abroad to flood across its border into northern Syria.

Harf focused almost exclusively on the Assad regime’s role, noting that Syrian President Bashar Assad had a history of supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – the precursor to ISIS – during the 2013-2011 Iraq war.

“The Assad regime played a key role in ISIL’s rise. They allowed for a security situation where ISIL could grow in strength,” she said. “The Syrian regime fostered the growth of terrorist networks. They facilitated the flow of al-Qaeda foreign fighters.”

“During the Iraq conflict specifically, the regime certainly has been aware and encouraged violent extremists’ transit through Syria to enter Iraq,” Harf added. “So the regime has had a long history of helping these kind of terrorists foment unrest in Iraq.”

Assad’s role in facilitating AQI’s campaign against U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians in Iraq is well known, but that applied to the situation as it was before the war officially ended and U.S. forces left at the end of 2011.

While continuing its violent campaign in Iraq, AQI in 2012 widened its scope and joined the fight against Assad in Syria, where in 2013 it began calling itself ISIS and had a rupture with al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based leadership.

ISIS now controls large swaths of territory in northern Syria and in northern and western Iraq, where the U.S. has since late last week been carrying out targeted airstrikes against its positions.

Harf also defended the administration’s support for the “moderate opposition” in the Syrian civil war.

“The U.S. has increased the scope and scale of our assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition, including announcements made last year and a request the president made of Congress this year to fund and authorize a train-and-equip program for the moderate Syrian opposition,” she said.

“That’s something we think is important, and we’ve continued to increase our efforts in that area.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow