Debate on arming Syrian rebels at ‘an early stage,’ Clinton tells Congress

Posted Feb. 28, 2012, at 10 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The international debate over whether to arm opposition fighters in Syria remains at “an early stage,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday, adding that “there’s no plan that we can point to.”

Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations committee that Syria offers “a more difficult and complicated set of circumstances” than Libya, where NATO and several Arab countries directly intervened, providing supplies and training for opposition forces during the uprising that eventually led to the overthrow and death of Moammar Gadhafi.

Clinton also said that Syria’s President Bashar Assad fits the definition of a war criminal.

She was pressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham about Syria, where the United Nations says more than 7,500 people have died through Assad’s violence against his people.

Asked if Assad is a war criminal, Clinton said he would fit into that category. She stopped short of saying the international community should make that designation and level charges, pointing out that such a step often makes it difficult for a leader to step down.

Clinton’s testimony illustrated the vast differences in opinion on how to stop the carnage in Syria. More than 70 countries and international institutions meeting last Friday in Tunisia decided to increase sanctions on Syria and coordinate humanitarian aid but were unable to agree on whether to send weapons there.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who led the argument in favor of arming the opposition, told the conference that “concentrating on how to deliver the humanitarian aid is not enough. It is as if we are fattening the game before the beast finishes preying on it.”

Clinton told the senators on Tuesday, in response to a question, that “there would be an argument to be made” that Syrian President Bashar Assad could be considered a war criminal. But, she said, pursuing international charges “limits options to persuade leaders, perhaps, to step down from power.”

Tunisia suggested during last week’s conference that Russia, which vetoed a U.N. Security Conference resolution calling for a post-Assad transitional government, should provide refuge for him. On Tuesday, news services quoted top Tunisian government officials as saying that the country would offer him exile if doing so would stop Syrian bloodshed.

But there is no indication that Assad is interested in leaving Syria, where government attacks against civilians continue.

Clinton also testified before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of the State Department’s budget. In both hearings, senators put her on notice that the Obama administration’s $54.7 billion diplomatic and development budget request for fiscal 2013 is unlikely to be fully funded.

“It’s going to be difficult to get a bill through this year,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the subcommittee’s chairman.

Clinton said the administration’s request “represents an increase of less than the rate of inflation and just over 1 percent of the federal budget, even as our responsibilities multiply around the world.” The request would increase the State Department’s budget by 2.6 percent.

The proposal includes a $770 million “incentive fund,” a pool of ready money to support democracy-building and economic growth in North Africa and the Middle East. Clinton noted that the administration had to “carve out” almost $360 million from programs last year to support U.S. aims in the Arab Spring countries of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and elsewhere in the region.

Leahy was particularly critical of the $4.8 billion request for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. Calling the embassy “a symbol of grandiose and unrealistic ambitions in that country,” he said it was “too big, too expensive.”

“The cost of providing security and day-to-day needs of employees and contractors is five times more costly than the actual programs,” Leahy said. “Of the 16,000 staff under the ambassador’s authority, more than 14,000 are for extraordinary support, including over 8,000 security and life-support contractors.”

Clinton said the State Department is in the process of “right-sizing” the embassy. Early this month, department heads at the Baghdad mission were instructed to outline personnel and program cuts of 25 percent, although no decisions about reductions have been made.

Clinton also appealed, with some bipartisan support, for a waiver provision in current laws that require the United States to withdraw from U.N. agencies that grant membership to a Palestinian state. Last year, the United States resigned from the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization when that body accepted Palestinian membership after a U.N. General Assembly vote that the United States and Israel opposed.

Despite U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO, however, Israel remains a member.

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