National Security

Syria showdown looms for Obama


The world is about to find out just how far President Obama will go to kick Bashar al-Assad out of Syria.

The White House has insisted for years that the strongman needs to step down, but so far he hasn’t budged.

Russia only complicated matters this week by launching airstrikes against the same rebels that the U.S. has supported to take Assad down.

Moscow’s decision to jump into the fray has upset the political calculations in Syria, and made the prospect of peace more elusive than ever.

{mosads}”We are not going to cooperate with a Russian campaign to simply try to destroy anybody who is disgusted and fed up with Mr. Assad’s behavior,” Obama said in a Friday afternoon news conference from the White House.

“Eventually, Syria will fall. The Assad regime will fall.”

Obama’s comments come amid growing fears of a proxy war in Syria and with many scratching their heads at what the White House wants to achieve.

“The American and Western argument is that Assad’s brutality has given rise to opposition. The Russian argument is that there’s no credible alternative to the Islamists other than the Assad regime,” said Mark Katz, a foreign policy professor at George Mason University.

“The problem is that they both might be right. The conflict might not end with Assad remaining in power and it won’t end with him being out of power either.”

So far, the Obama administration been stern in its public scolding of Russia, as its airstrikes reportedly target rebels backed by the CIA.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter this week accused Moscow of “pouring gasoline on the fire” of the civil war by doubling down its support for Assad while claiming to target the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Putin’s strategy is “self-defeating,” Obama said on Friday. “It will get them into a quagmire.”

While acknowledging its differences with Russia, though, the Obama administration has showed some willingness to bend.

The administration has for years said that Assad needs to step aside, but seems to have adopted a more flexible time-frame in recent weeks.

“It doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in London last month, as Russia began to move into Syria. “We’ve made it very clear that we’re not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time. We’re open.

“But right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion and Russia has refused to help bring him to the table in order to do that,” Kerry concluded.

The mixed messages appear to be part of a bank shot strategy, in which the U.S. hopes Russia can serve as a ringer to convince Assad to step down — if only to pave the way for another Kremlin-friendly leader.

Syria is Russia’s only toehold in the Middle East, and the Kremlin has remained an ally of Assad even as his country has descended into chaos over the last four years.

Russia’s desire to show its influence could be an opening for Obama.

“What they feel strongly about is keeping someone in power — putting someone in power — over which they have leverage,” said Julianne Smith, the director of the strategy and statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security and a former national security advisor to Vice President Biden.

“If we can work with the Russians to come up with something that can appeal to them, we probably have a slight chance of pursuing that outcome,” she added. “It’s not entirely clear whether we’ll ever see eye-to-eye on what Assad’s future could look like, but we now have a window that we didn’t have before.”

At the United Nations this week, Obama called for a “managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader,” which could include input from Iran, Russia, Turkey and other regional powers.

That’s a shift from the administration’s earlier reluctance to allow some of those countries to play a role.

The new attitude seems to build on the White House’s perceived success in securing a nuclear deal with Iran. To forge that agreement, Obama similarly had to sit down with Iran and Russia.

“There’s room to work with the Iranians, who have a major say in what happens in Syria, and there’s an opportunity to work with the Russians, who have legitimate concerns in terms of Islamic radicalism,” Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and the head of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The challenge is great, but here is a possibility for a renewed initiative.”

The crisis in Syria, now in its fifth year, has had repercussions far beyond its borders.

More than 250,000 people have been killed in the violence so far. The fighting has forced 4 million to flee the country — scores of whom have died trying to reach foreign shores — and another 7 million to become internally displaced.

Assad controls just about one-quarter of the country’s territory.

Into the power vacuum has stepped Islamic extremists, including groups aligned with al Qaeda and ISIS.

Russia’s entry into the battlefield complicates not just the U.S. desire to boot Assad from power, but also raises concerns that a miscommunication between American and Russian forces will lead to a disastrous accident.

The two militaries began talks this week to make sure that they are on the same page.

For now, basic formalities are the best one can hope for between the two countries.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters that the meeting was merely “an initial step… to ensure no accidents occur as a result of Russia’s commencement of airstrikes in Syria.”

The hour-long videoconference, he added, was “cordial and professional.”

Tags Barack Obama Bashar Assad ISIS Russia Syria Vladimir Putin

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video