Obama takes heat as Syrian rebel quits

The Obama administration struggled Monday to defend the president's Syria policy after a key rebel leader resigned, citing a lack of Western support.

Moaz al-Khatib's decision to step down as president of the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition is but the latest sign that the two-year-old conflict is only growing more chaotic, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid. Bashar Assad's regime and the rebels last week traded accusations of chemical weapons use, and well-armed Islamist militants are gaining the upper hand among the rebellion, prompting renewed calls for the administration to arm pro-Western rebels like Khatib.

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“It's important to underscore that leadership transitions are inevitable in any democratic process,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday. “While we're certainly sorry to see the news of Khatib's resignation, you know, we're going to continue to work in the region to support the efforts of  the rebels and to continue up our steady drumbeat to urge Assad to step aside so that the Syrian people can have a government that reflects their will.”

Khatib initially refused to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry during his first official trip last month, changing his mind only after Kerry and his European counterparts “promised specific aid to alleviate the suffering of our people,” according to a posting on his Facebook page. Khatib has long called for the United States and other Western powers to arm the rebels.

“Everything that happened to the Syrian people, from destruction of infrastructure, arrest of tens of thousands of their children and displacement of tens of thousands and other tragedies is not enough for the world to take an international decision to allow people to defend themselves,” he said in a statement Sunday.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell also faced a barrage of questions Monday about whether the recent developments showed Obama's Syria policy to be a failure. He also sought to downplay Khatib's importance.

“This is political negotiation. There's give and take, and there's going to be advances, and there's going to be moments where there are bumps along the road as well,” he said. “But again, the opposition doesn't rely on one individual or another. ... And we're going to continue to work with them and to get through these hiccups ... and these bumps along the road, to get them as united as possible.”

He said the administration's technical assistance with the Syrian rebels continues unabated.

“They have offices in Cairo. Ambassador [Robert] Ford and his team are in constant contact with the wider range of, not only political leadership, but technical experts as well,” he said. “So, part of it is getting organized at a technocratic level, and part of it is at a political level. And this is a democratic process, there's going to be some ups and downs. But we're going to continue to push, and work with them to try to get them as organized as possible.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long advocated arming the rebels, said Obama bears some responsibility for this weekend's “setback” because his administration has done “precious little” to support the opposition.

“The resignation of Sheikh Moaz,” he said in a statement, “must be seen in this broader context: It represents a failure of American leadership, which is only further weakening what is left of Syria's responsible, democratic opposition.”