Citing Iraq Failures, Hillary Clinton Avoids Endorsing Syrian Rebels

U.S. must take sophisticated approach in choosing who to support, Clinton says.

In this photo from Friday, Nov. 02, 2012, a rebel fighter walks among the debris of damaged residential buildings after several days of intense fighting between rebel fighters and the Syrian army in the Karm al-Jebel neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria.

A rebel fighter walks past damaged residential buildings in Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 02, 2012.

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The secretary of State inched closer Thursday to supporting opposition fighters in Syria but, citing America's recent failures abroad, still fell short of following other Western powers in acknowledging the opposition as the new Syrian government.

Parts of the war-torn country are at a "tipping point" following roughly 20 months of fighting, though the existing regime of Bashar al-Assad has not yet lost total control, Hillary Clinton told reporters and guests at a Foreign Policy event Thursday night.

She refused to join Britain and France in their recognition of the collection of opposition groups -- called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces -- as the country's representative body.

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"It appears as though the opposition in Syria is now capable of holding ground," she said. "They are better equipped and more able to bring the fight to the government forces."

"I don't know if you can say that for the entire country, it is yet at a tipping point. It certainly seems that the regime will be much harder pressed in recent months," she added.

The U.S. must adopt a sophisticated approach in choosing who to support within Syria, said Clinton, for fear of repeating mistakes the U.S. made after invading Iraq in 2003.

Supporting the opposition must be paired with endorsing local councils committed to "continuity" and "Syrian governmental institutions," she said, to ensure these institutional forces don't collapse.

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"We know from our Iraq experience [that] can be extremely dangerous," she said.

Clinton denies recent speculation that the U.S. has upgraded its support of the opposition to lethal supplies. Unconfirmed videos have shown opposition fighters using more advanced weapons recently, including heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles, the New York Times reports.

She maintained that the U.S. has only issued humanitarian assistance to the tune of roughly $200 million since fighting began.

The secretary hinted that U.S. hesitancy to get more involved militarily and politically is at least partially because "there are so many interests by all the players, many of which are contradictory."

Turkey, for example, is worried that no power or resources spreads to outlawed Kurdish fighters operating on its border with Syria. Assad was a known sponsor of this group, known as the PKK.

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Jordan is also working to maintain stability within its country, Clinton said, and is worried about "upsetting the delicate balance inside."

Lebanon has also strived to stay out of direct involvement in the Syrian fighting, she said, though Sunni extremists have holed up in safe havens there.

Artillery attacks from within Syria recently fell onto the Golan Heights on the Israeli border but, following return fire from Israeli Defense Forces, was deemed to be accidental fire.

Syrian opposition groups are currently meeting in Cairo, Clinton said. The Friends of Syria, an international collective of groups that discuss Syrian issues, will participate in a multilateral meeting in Morocco in the second week of December.

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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com