Hagel memo criticized WH Syria strategy

Hagel memo criticized WH Syria strategy
© Getty Images

Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: Navy medic killed after wounding 2 sailors in Maryland shooting | Dems push Biden for limits on military gear transferred to police | First day of talks on Iran deal 'constructive' 140 national security leaders call for 9/11-style panel to review Jan. 6 attack Trump Afghan pullout deal unachievable, says ex-Pentagon leader MORE wrote a memo to National Security Adviser Susan RiceSusan RiceThe Hill's 12:30 Report: What the J&J vaccine pause means for COVID pandemic The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - Biden, lawmakers start down a road with infrastructure White House putting national police oversight commission on hold MORE sharply criticizing the White House strategy on Syria, according to reports from The New York Times and CNN

The two-page memo details “concern about the overall Syria strategy” and called for a more defined plan for handling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a senior U.S. official told the cable network.


The unnamed source said Hagel was concerned that the U.S. could lose gains it made in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) if it did not alter its strategy toward Assad.

The Obama administration is facing a difficult quandary in Syria, where ISIS has seized control of large swaths of the country amid a bloody civil war between Assad and rebel groups.

The White House has repeatedly called for Assad’s removal from power, but there is some concern that by targeting ISIS, which is also fighting the brutal dictator, the U.S. could embolden his regime.

Hagel acknowledged during a briefing Thursday that Assad has gotten a boost from the U.S.'s attacks on ISIS.

"As we and the coalition go after ISIL to help the Iraqis secure their government, but also the Middle East, yes, Assad derives some benefit of that," Hagel said.

He added that the long-term solution in Syria would take "all elements" of the U.S. government as well as countries in the Middle East and others working together.

"Now, the fighting can go on for years and years to what end? How does that bring a resolution to the objective of what the people, the governments of that part of the world need?"

The president has also acknowledged the tension between fighting ISIS and assisting Assad.

“I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance," Obama said in an interview late last month with “60 Minutes.”

But the president pledged that the U.S. is “not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad,” citing the “terrible atrocities” committed by the regime.

The White House hopes that, by training and equipping the moderate opposition in a program approved by Congress earlier this month, they’ll be able to battle against both ISIS and Assad loyalists. 

But Obama has also said that fighting ISIS is “a more immediate concern that has to be dealt with.”

Any effort to escalate efforts against the Assad regime would also be complicated by the president’s aborted attempt to secure congressional approval for airstrikes against Syria a year ago.

Obama abandoned that plan, after it seemed the proposal would not have the votes in Congress, instead accepting a Russian-brokered deal under which Assad agreed to turn over his chemical weapons.

In the Times story, both White House chief of staff Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughCongress must address the toxic exposure our veterans have endured Veterans shouldn't have to wait for quality care The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality MORE and national security adviser Susan Rice are described as “skeptical” about being drawn into the Syrian civil war.

But McDonough acknowledged to the Times that he wished the administration had acted sooner to fight ISIS after seeing the terror network sweep through much of northern Iraq. McDonough attributed the White House’s slow response to misjudging the capabilities of the Iraqi army.

— This story was updated at 3:53 p.m.