White House says Assad 'losing control’ but holds line against arming rebels

The Obama administration said Wednesday that the situation Syria is spinning out of control and President Bashar Assad is losing his grip after a bomb in Damascus killed Syria’s defense minister and his deputy.

But the dramatic events appeared unlikely to change U.S. policy, with the administration remaining opposed to directly supplying arms or other military support to the rebels.

The Damascus bombing, which Syrian rebel forces claimed credit for, was a major blow to the Assad regime, killing Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha and Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and Assad’s brother in law.

The White House reiterated that it would not get involved in the conflict militarily and called on the international community to come together so a political transition could occur.

“We do not believe that violence is the answer, and it is precisely because of the ongoing campaign by President Assad against his own people that we are seeing a situation that is getting worse and worse,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. “The incident today makes clear that Assad is losing control, that violence is increasing rather than decreasing, and that all of our partners internationally need to come together and support a transition.”

But critics in Congress who have argued for the administration to intervene in Syria warned that, without U.S. and international action, the atrocities in Syria could escalate, particularly if Assad retaliates. 

“The Obama Administration, and the world at large, is fiddling while Syria burns,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement. “I hope we don’t end up regretting our inaction.”

Russia has angered the Obama administration by blocking further action in the United Nations Security Council against Syria. The UN Security Council delayed a vote on a new Syria resolution for a day on Wednesday in an attempt to get Russia on board.

Defense analysts said that the attack on senior members of the Syrian regime was a significant step for the opposition’s attempts to fight back against Assad.

“It does signal a strength of the opposition forces that may have been underappreciated before. I think that’s a major development,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Danielle Pletka, an analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the administration might tout its strategy of avoiding military action if the opposition continues to make gains. But she warned that the lack of U.S. involvement would be felt once Assad is forced from power.

“How much influence are we going to have, how will we help manage the aftermath, how are we going to have a stake in helping along the transition of a country that we want desperately to move away from Iran?” Pletka said.

“And the answer is we won’t have any influence at all.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), who has frequently joined Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in criticizing the administration on Syria, said he was concerned about U.S. influence if Assad’s government falls.

“I think we’re at a turning point, and obviously these events today show that the opposition is gaining ground on Assad, and the defections particularly from his military and civilian government are significant,” Lieberman told The Hill.

“It’s very important we be more involved to help the opposition because if we are, the government that follows Assad will be more open to us and our values than if we’re not.”

One of the chief U.S. concerns about Syria is the presence of al Qaeda within the opposition, something that King Abdullah II of Jordan acknowledged in a CNN interview on Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted the instability in the region when he said in response to the bombing that Syria was “spinning out of control.”

McCain said that he didn’t expect much change from the administration on Syria, even if it was “inevitable” that Assad would go. 

“But meanwhile we’ve already slaughtered 17,000, and more are coming,” McCain said, referring to the number of Syrians killed in the 16-month conflict.