The Cable

Senior Republican senator: Syrian revolution not really about 'democracy'

Not all Republican politicians are gung ho about intervening to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but one senior Republican, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), isn't even convinced the revolution is a real democratic movement.

Corker, the second highest ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday that he doesn't support any direct assistance to the Syrian opposition beyond humanitarian aid. Moreover, he doesn't think the Syrian opposition has proven it represents a positive and credible alternative to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"I don't think we know enough about the opposition groups that have become involved or what might happen should Bashar be gone," said Corker. He said that the information the administration has given him in secret doesn't match the rhetoric administration officials use when talking about the Syrian opposition in public.

"In the classified briefings I've had, I don't get the sense at all that this is about democracy, OK? This is not some sort of George Washington thing we're watching," he said, drawing a distinction between the Syrian uprising and the American revolution.

"This is not the same kind of thing that's happening in Libya," he said. "It could shape up over time -- the opposition groups could come together and focus in a way they aren't doing right now... I'm just saying I don't think we know enough about what's happening internally or what the outcome would be if we helped the opposition groups. I don't think this is near to the place where the opposition was in Libya."

Corker's Tuesday comments are even more cautious than the Obama administration's current stance, which is to speed humanitarian and communication assistance to the Syrian internal opposition while looking the other way while other countries arms the rebels.

And this was not the first time Corker has criticized the drive to aid the Syrian opposition, much less strike Syria as his senate colleagues Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) advocate.

At a March 1 hearing on Syria before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker said that he was shocked by the grim assessment of the Syrian opposition given by Obama administration officials in a classified briefing only one day before.

"We had a classified briefing yesterday that could not have been more different than the one we're having today. It's really kind of fascinating. You know, when we talk about the opposition groups, this part I don't think is classified. I mean, you ask, OK, what are these guys fighting for? The word democracy never comes up. I mean, basically you've got an Alawite minority that has dominion over, if you will, a Sunni population mostly. And what the Sunnis are fighting for is dominion over the minority population," Corker said.

"I mean, we heard no words whatsoever about anything other than this being a conflict between one group of people that has been oppressed by another group of people and their desire to change that equation."

"I don't know what you heard in the briefing yesterday, but let me just say from direct firsthand experience," responded Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. "I have talked to people who've organized the demonstrations and I have had team members from my embassy talk to them repeatedly. We got a very clear message from them that people who organized this, senator, that they have a vision of a state that abides by rule of law and is not targeting the Alawites."

"But the fact is that this is not exactly a democracy movement in Syria right now," Corker shot back.

"Senator, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree," said Ford. "The public statements from senior figures in the Free Syrian Army speak about supporting a democratic state. We don't know yet what they would do were they in power."

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