- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry brushed aside questions Friday about why President Obama refused to embrace a plan from top advisers to send weapons to rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying he instead wants to look ahead to future policy challenges.

“Let me just say, I don’t know what the discussions were in the White House and who said what, and I’m not going to go backwards,” Mr. Kerry told reporters gathered at the State Department.

The plan to arm some rebels, backed by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus, divided the Obama White House, which has been struggling with what role the U.S. can play in trying to bring an end to the nearly two years of bloodshed in Syria.

But Mr. Kerry, who took over at the helm of the State Department last week, said he’s not going to get into an old debate.

“This is a new administration now, the president’s second term,” said Mr. Kerry. “I’m a new secretary of state, and we’re going forwards from this point.”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta revealed on Thursday that he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey had also originally backed the plan to send weapons to Syrian opposition rebels — before the White House blocked it.

Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Mr. Panetta said there “were a number of factors that were involved” in Mr. Obama’s ultimate decision not to go through with the plan, but to instead make U.S. assistance to the rebels “nonlethal.”

“I supported his decision in the end,” Mr. Panetta said. He is expected to soon retire as defense secretary.

Channeling aid into Syria has presented political and strategic challenges for the Obama administration, which has expressed concerns about the presence of Islamists among those battling the regime of Mr. Assad.

Administration officials say they fear that U.S. aid could end up in the wrong hands.

On Friday, Mr. Kerry said that his “sense right now is that everybody in the administration, and people in other parts of the world, are deeply distressed by the continued violence in Syria.”

“There is too much killing, there’s too much violence, and we obviously want to try to find a way forward,” Mr. Kerry said.

He added that there are “serious questions” about the “Al Nusra” fighting front in Syria — an organization that has already been designated a terrorist organization by the United States — and he said he was worried about “AQI, al-Qaida from Iraq, coming in, and other violent groups on the ground.”

“It is a very complicated and very dangerous situation,” Mr. Kerry said. “And everybody understands it is a place that has chemical weapons, and we are deeply concerned about that.”

The newly confirmed secretary of state suggested, however, that the Obama administration, is still struggling to ascertain the best way forward.

“We are evaluating now,” Mr. Kerry said. “We’re taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic, particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with the situation.”

The New York Times first reported last Sunday that as the fighting raged in Syria last summer, Mr. Petraeus developed a plan, which Mrs. Clinton supported, calling for vetting rebels and training fighters who would be supplied with weapons.
The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria, the newspaper reported.

Most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team backed the plan but the president, in the midst of a re-election bid, rebuffed it.

The White House instead ramped up “nonlethal” support for Syrian rebels and refugees late last month, committing a fresh $155 million in humanitarian aid and bringing the total U.S. monetary response to the Syrian civil war to $365 million.

Mr. Obama has directed $15 million of the new aid toward helping some 700,000 Syrians who, the United Nations estimates, have fled their homeland as a result of the two-year-old war that has claimed more 60,000 lives.

With the U.N. estimating 200,000 refugees have left Syria just in the past seven weeks, Mr. Obama signed an order Tuesday authorizing aid from the United States “for the purpose of meeting unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs.