The Cable

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, 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."

Office of Rep. Adam Smith

The Cable

Is Camp Liberty really a 'concentration camp' for the MEK?

The U.S. government has worked hard to find a new location in Iraq for the thousands of members of the Iranian dissident group Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization that is being kicked out of its home at Camp Ashraf by the Iraqi government.

But now the State Department has to answer aggressive charges that the new home for the MEK, a former U.S. military base called Camp Liberty, is a "concentration camp" with horrid conditions. What's more, these charges are coming from senior U.S. politicians and experts, led by former New York mayor and presidential candidate Rudi Giuliani.

"This is not a relocation camp. I have seen relocation camps. I know what relocation camps look like. And I know what jails look like. This isn't a jail. This is a concentration camp. That's what it is. This is a concentration camp. Let's call it what it is," Giuliani said at a Feb. 26 "conference" held under the rubric of something called the Global Initiative for Democracy, an advocacy group that seems to be very interested in the MEK issue.

"This is worse than any facility I've ever seen having been at one time in charge of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and another time responsible for the New York City jail system, Rikers Island, materially better than this. This is a concentration camp."

The State Department worked with the United Nations to prepare Camp Liberty, now renamed Camp Hurriya (Arabic for "freedom"), to get it ready for the MEK, but the MEK has been reluctant to move there. The first tranche of about 400 MEK members started relocating this month.

Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, who was on the panel with Guliani at the Feb. 26 conference, wholeheartedly agreed with his take on the conditions at Camp Liberty, according to a press release put out by the Global Initiative for Democracy.

"This is a scandal. This is a fraud; a fraud not involving money, but a fraud involving threats to human life. What we need immediately is a commission of inquiry to determine how this fraud was perpetrated," Dershowitz said. "Who certified, who approved that hell hole, that garbage dump? Who said that it met United Nations standards? Somebody is responsible for perpetrating that fraud and for getting 400 innocent people to risk their lives and their health to be exposed to that kind of trash and that kind of hazard to their health. We have to get to the bottom of this."

Neither man ever called Camp Liberty a "concentration camp" or a "garbage dump" when it housed hundreds of U.S. soldiers for years during the Iraq war.

Also on that panel were several former high-ranking officials who have been on the roster of the MEK's often-paid supporters in Washington, including former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats on the National Intelligence Council Glenn Carle.

Other speakers at the conference included former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, former U.S. Ambassador to the UK Philip Lader, and former policy advisor at the Treasury Department's office of terrorism and financial intelligence Avi Jorisch.

Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Ted Poe (R-TX) both questioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the MEK at Wednesday's hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, with Poe directly raising Guliani's accusation that the new location amounted to a "concentration camp."

Clinton didn't comment on the "concentration camp" charge and simply emphasized that the U.S. was working hard to safely relocate the MEK to Camp Liberty, keep the Iraqi government from harassing the MEK, and ensure that the U.N. monitors the camp and provides help for refugees. She also said that if the MEK really wants off the list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO), it should get with the program at Camp Liberty.

"Congressman, given the ongoing efforts to relocate the residents, MEK cooperation in the successful and peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf, the MEK's main paramilitary base, will be a key factor in any decision regarding the MEK's FTO status," Clinton said.