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Wusses, US foreign policy, and the horrific death toll in Syria

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Scott Eisen/AP

(Read caption) Is "don't be a wuss" any way to run a foreign policy? Bill Clinton suggests it might be.

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Former President Bill Clinton more or less suggested that President Barack Obama should "man up" and back Syria's rebels against the government led by President Bashar al-Assad.

Clinton's remarks, at a closed event with Senator John McCain yesterday in New York, came shortly before the UN updated its death toll from the Syrian civil war – 92,901 dead and counting. That number runs from March 2011 to the end of this April and represents an aggregation and analysis from eight different sources, some pro-government, some pro-rebellion. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said "this is most likely a minimum casualty figure. The true number of those killed is potentially much higher." The UN estimated that 82 percent of the dead are men, and that at least 6,561 minors have been killed in the conflict.

The Syrian war is a humanitarian catastrophe, there is no getting around that. And the updated casualty figures are going to fuel more hand-wringing that the US must "do something," as well as further suggestions that all the death in the country is the fault of Assad.

But that's clearly not true. Syrian government forces have also died at horrific rates. While most neutral observers indicate that the government has been more responsible for civilian atrocities than the rebels, the rebels have been far from blameless. And what exactly should the US do?

Mr. Clinton, whose remarks were recorded by an attendee and leaked to Politico, wasn't clear. He warned that if Obama was deterred from acting based on polling which shows most Americans are opposed to another war that he'd look like a "wuss" and said that action for its own sake is sometimes the right course of action.

"Some people say, ‘OK, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake. I agree with you about this,” Clinton told McCain. “Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit — like, as long as you don’t make an improvident commitment.”

He complained about Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah support for Assad and suggested that the US should try to "do something to try to slow their gains and rebalance the power so that these rebel groups have a decent chance, if they’re supported by a majority of the people, to prevail." 

Perhaps. But is the rebellion prevailing in US interests? Is it in humanitarian interests if a hotter, longer war results from the US fully engaging in a proxy war involving Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and a likely spillover into neighbors like Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan? What of the sizable presence of jihadis in the ranks of the rebels, who detest the country's minority Alawite sect (which Assad and much of his inner circle belong to) and its Christian minority, not to mention their hostility to US interests? If US weapons end up at the sharp end of sectarian massacres if the rebels win, what then?

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These difficult to answer, troubling questions are among the reasons that Obama has hesitated to become more involved. And clearly casualties are not all on one side.

Earlier this month the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in London that has generally been supportive of the rebels during the country's 27 month old civil war, estimated that over 96,000 Syrians have died in the war and that over 24,600 were members of the government security forces and a further 17,000 belonged to the pro-government Shabiha militias. The group estimated that nearly 35,500 of the dead are non-combatants.

The Observatory's numbers need to be treated with care, as the political affiliations of the group are opaque, as are the manner in which it carries out its work. But it's one of the few estimates of pro-regime casualties out there.

And while it is almost impossible to know the political leanings of all the civilian dead, the chances that all of them are pro-rebellion are zero. There have been credible reports of massacres of Shiites and Alawites, who support the Assad government in greater numbers than the country's Sunni majority, at the hands of rebel forces. The UN report released today is limited to "killings that are fully identified by the name of the victim, as well as the date and location of death" hence the assumption of an under count.

What's needed to determine whether the US should get directly involved or not is reasonable assumptions about whether more arms for the rebels will lead to fewer deaths and atrocities in the end, if US interests will indeed be served by a rebel victory, and the ease with which US-supplied weapons can be kept out of jihadi hands.

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