Dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a “more immediate concern” than confronting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, President Obama said in an interview airing late Sunday.
Syria, where the Assad regime and ISIS have been waging a bloody civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead, has presented a vexing problem for the Obama administration.
Obama requested congressional authority to bomb Assad last year after Damascus ordered the use of chemical weapons. The president ultimately abandoned that plan after Syria agreed to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile. Earlier this week, the U.S. began airstrikes against ISIS forces operating within Syria for the first time, despite fears that doing so could ultimately end up bolstering Assad.
Obama said he recognized “the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance,” but vowed the U.S. was “not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad” and said the Syrian president had ordered “terrible atrocities.”
“For a long-term political settlement, for Syria to remain unified, it is not possible that Assad presides over that entire process,” Obama said.
On the other hand, Obama said, terror networks like ISIS and the Khorasan Group — an al Qaeda offshoot operating in Syria that was also targeted in U.S. air strikes — pose “immediate threats to the United States.”
“Those folks could kill Americans,” Obama said.
Obama acknowledged that the moderate Syrian opposition his administration is relying on to make sure that Assad cannot benefit from U.S. airstrikes “has been squeezed between [ISIS] on the one hand and the Assad regime on the other.”
“Right now, it doesn't control much territory,” Obama said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Sunday painted the president’s plan to rely on the opposition as untenable.
“At the end of the day, I think it's gonna take more than airstrikes to drive them outta there,” Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse markup of ObamaCare repeal bill up in the air Conservatives to Congress: Get moving Boehner: ObamaCare repeal and replace 'not going to happen' MORE (R-Ohio) told ABC News’s “This Week.” “At some point somebody's boots have to be on the ground.”
The Republican leader said that if nobody else stood up those boots may have to be American.
“We have no choice,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse markup of ObamaCare repeal bill up in the air Conservatives to Congress: Get moving Boehner: ObamaCare repeal and replace 'not going to happen' MORE said. “These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don't destroy them first, we're gonna pay the price.”
Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyDem senator goes on tweet storm over leaked ObamaCare repeal plan A guide to the committees: Senate Senators eye new sanctions against Iran MORE (D-Conn.) agreed with Boehner that the rebels would not be able to defeat Assad and ISIS, although said that might be a reason to avoid military conflict in Syria.
“Ultimately, I don’t think we have a partner in the Free Syrian Army who ultimately can win that fight militarily so I worry you get sucked into a long-term conflict,” Murphy told CNN.
Separately, the president defended the decision not to arm the Syrian rebels earlier in the civil war, saying the rise of ISIS underscored how tough the situation on the ground was evidence that strategy would not have worked. A bipartisan group of critics — including former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham Clinton5 ways politics could steal the show at Oscars Lewandowski: Perez ‘doesn’t understand what’s going on in America’ Five takeaways from the Scott Pruitt emails MORE — complained Obama waited too long to begin arming the opposition.
Obama said there was a “mythology that's evolved that somehow if we had given those folks some guns two and a half years ago, that Syria would be fine.”
“We didn't know and couldn't sort out very well who's potentially ISIL or Al Nusra member and who is somebody that we're going to work with,” the president said, using another acronym for ISIS. “For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation. But we also would have committed us to a much more significant role inside of Syria. “