Interview With Kim Ghattas of BBC
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
February 26, 2012
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thank you very much for speaking to the BBC. Just over a year ago, I asked you a question about Libya, and I know that Libya and Syria are very different, but in essence the question kind of remains the same. With no sign of rapid tangible action to stop the violence in Syria, if we wake up tomorrow and President Assad has leveled Homs to the ground, history will not judge the Obama Administration very kindly.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I just disagree with that premise, Kim I think that if you look at what’s happening in Syria, and it’s very different from Libya – and you’re right, a year ago we were cautiously assessing what was possible, and what became possible, because the opposition controlled territory, had a united national presence that was quite prepared to not only engage diplomatically but organize against the Qadhafi regime is not present yet in Syria. And certainly that is a condition precedent for anyone who is trying to figure out how to help these defenseless people against this absolutely relentless assault.
I wish that people inside Syria were responding as people inside Libya responded. They are not, at this point, perhaps because of the firepower and the absolute intent that we’ve seen by the Assad regime to kill whomever. But the fact is we are moving to do everything possible with the international community.
QUESTION: But if the people inside Syria can’t get organized, and the rebels don’t have the territory to organize properly, what is the responsibility of the international community to make sure that we don’t end up with a large-scale massacre?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Kim, we still have a very strong opposition to foreign intervention from inside Syria, from outside Syria. We don’t have the United States Security Council approval, legitimacy, credibility that comes with the international community making a decision We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region, al-Qaida, Hamas, and those who are on our terrorist list, to be sure, supporting – claiming to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next. So I don’t want to say that nothing can be done, because I don’t believe that and I feel like we are moving to the best of everyone’s ability who is concerned as we are about this.
But I want to make clear that for anyone watching this horrible massacre that is going on to ask yourself: Okay. What do you do? If you bring in automatic weapons, which you can maybe smuggle across the border, okay, what do they do against tanks and heavy artillery? So there’s such a much more complex set of factors. But I want to assure you part of the reason for the Tunis meeting was to see whose side who was on.
QUESTION: At the Tunis meeting, the Saudi foreign minister said it was an excellent idea to arm the rebels. Others are perhaps already doing that. Are you discouraging them or encouraging them?
SECRETARY CLINTON: We are doing neither. We are only speaking on behalf of the United States.
QUESTION: But aren’t you worried that arms flowing into in the country will feed into the conflict?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, but that contradicts the point you were making earlier, and understandably, because it’s a very difficult set of considerations. I have no doubt that people are already trying, to the best of their ability, to get arms into those who are defending themselves. What I can’t understand is why the Syrian army is doing Assad’s bidding and taking these actions against defenseless people, staining their honor, undermining one of the institutional pillars of their country. I don’t understand that.
QUESTION: It’s starting to look like this is going to be a long conflict. Are you worried about that? Are you worried about years of conflict in Syria, perhaps something like a Lebanon scenario with regional pairs and different groupings and armies splintering?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I am worried about it. I think that there’s every possibility of a civil war. Outside intervention would not prevent that; it would probably expedite it. So I think that as you try to play out every possible scenario, there are a lot of bad ones that we are trying to assess while keeping our eye on the need to get humanitarian aid in, to try to do everything we possibly can to support the Syrian opposition, to make it credible, to have it be both inside the country and outside the country speaking on behalf of the Syrian people, inclusive, representative. And we’re trying to help push a democratic transition. It took more than a year in Yemen, but finally there was a new president inaugurated. People kept being killed all the time.
So these are very painful situations. There’s no getting around it. I feel like everyone else watching the video, and I also have the additional information that comes from all kinds of intelligence sources, so I know how terrible things are in parts of Syria. Other parts are totally unaffected. So this is a difficult but necessary engagement for the world to stay focused on.
QUESTION: In Tunis, you called the Chinese and Russian actions despicable on Syria. Is that wise? Aren’t you cutting them out of the solution? You may need them to negotiate a possible exit for President Assad.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, they’re free to negotiate anytime they want to try to bring this to an end. The best I can see is their negotiation is only to reinforce Assad’s existing tendencies and actions. And their actions are very distressing, because they could be part of the solution.
If you look at the Security Council resolution that they vetoed, there were no arms going into Syria under it, no foreign intervention of any kind, no basis for foreign military action, not even sanctions. What we were trying to do is to have the international community behind the Arab League’s leadership, which was to negotiate that kind of handover that proved successful with Yemen. And that is something that the Russians wouldn’t go for, so we, of course, would invite, welcome, encourage Russian and Chinese intervention that could lead to the end of the bloodshed.
QUESTION: But some argue that the United States and all the Friends of Syria are hiding behind Chinese and Russian obstructions. Because the reality is no one, as you said, is really ready to deal with the consequences that any sort of intervention to halt the violence would actually entail when it comes to Syria. This is a very complicated country. So in a way, the Russians and the Chinese are also making it easier for you to step back and see how this plays out.
SECRETARY CLINTON: No. If they had joined us in the Security Council, I think it would have sent a really strong message to Assad that he needed to start planning his exit, and the people around him, who are already hedging their bets, would have been doing the same. Because they know they’ve got Iran actively supporting them, Russia selling them arms and diplomatically protecting them, and China not wanting anybody to interfere with anybody’s internal affairs. So that gives them a lot of comfort. Those are three consequential countries, one right on their border, one nearby, and one that has a lot of influence.
So I think that we have to take the facts as we find them. I wish I could wave my magic wand and change them, but that’s not possible. So therefore, we are waiting for the Russians to play a constructive role, as they have continued to promise us. Unfortunately, that’s not been forthcoming.
And I would not be doing my job if I were not looking at the complexity. I mean, I could come on and I could do an interview with you and I could say, “Oh, we’re all for them. Let’s go get them.” But what would that mean? Because clearly I know how complex this is, and anybody who is thinking about it and having to actually consider what could happen next understands it. So what I’m trying to do is work through this with likeminded countries that so we can get to a point where there is sufficient pressure so that the people around Assad – the business community is still supporting him, the minorities, which you know so well from Lebanon, don’t know which way to jump and are scared about what might come after, the opposition, which doesn’t have any place that can really be a base of operations. I mean, there’s just so many features of what it takes to run an effective campaign against such a brutal regime that are still not in place.
QUESTION: I’m going to squeeze in a last question about Egypt. Regardless of the outcome with the issue of American NGO workers who are detained and others as well, because there aren’t only Americans who are facing charges – regardless of the outcome, it seems to show that the current political establishment, which is a result of the popular revolution, is just as opposed to the work of civil society as the government of President Mubarak was. That’s not a great result for a popular uprising.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Kim, I’m not sure what it shows, because there isn’t a government yet. I mean, that’s one of the problems, is that they’re still in transition. They finished elections for the parliament. They don’t have an executive that would have such authority to be able to determine what is and is not the policy of the new Egyptian Government. So we’re in a transition. And I think that’s one of the reasons why these difficulties flare up.
QUESTION: Would you trust the judicial system in Egypt?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think we are working with the highest levels of the existing Egyptian authorities and we’re hoping to get this resolved.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.