Obama Adviser Says Political Solution Possible in Syria

One of President Barack Obama’s top national security advisers said a political solution remains possible in Syria, even as the U.S. steps up its military involvement in the country’s civil war.

“A political settlement is the best way forward,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. “Of all of the answers out there, it’s for sure the least bad one that we have.”

Blinken’s remarks came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heads to the region for talks with foreign ministers from 10 nations backing the Syrian opposition. Some, such as Saudi Arabia and France, have pushed to provide greater firepower to rebels who say they need anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

The White House has announced only that the U.S. would expand military aid to the Syrian opposition. While Obama has authorized providing small arms and ammunition, he’s stopped short of backing air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, a no-fly zone over the country or heavier weaponry to battle the regime’s tanks and aircraft.

Blinken said the U.S. was working “very carefully and very deliberately” to make certain that American assistance doesn’t wind up arming Syrian rebels who have links to terrorist organizations.

“We want to make sure that extremists on any side of this equation are not empowered as we work toward a political transition,” he said.

Russian Involvement

Russian officials, who are helping Assad’s forces, have said that by arming the rebels the U.S. is aiding terrorist groups. Yet Blinken pointed to a decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin at this week’s conference of the Group of Eight nations to support an investigation into the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict as a sign that Russian support for Assad is softening.

“The Russians got behind that” statement, he said.

The debate over Syria continues as the U.S. struggles to get peace talks in Afghanistan moving with the Taliban.

Kerry’s trip was delayed by a dispute between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders over the use of the Taliban flag and formal name at a new office in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban changed the name of its facility and talks may begin as early as this weekend.

Blinken said U.S. officials anticipated “some turbulence” at the start of the talks, adding that the U.S. will stick to its 2014 timetable for withdrawing troops from the country, even if security and peace discussions remain stymied.

“The war will be concluded by the end of 2014,” he said.

Government Surveillance

Blinken also addressed criticism about the bounds of secretive government surveillance programs, saying it’s “very rare” that U.S. officials collect personal communications from American citizens. He reiterated the administration’s stance that any Internet communications monitored by the National Security Agency are targeting foreigners.

“When it comes to information from Americans that’s incidentally collected, it’ very important to note that the program in question is focused on non-Americans,” Blinken said.

His remarks followed the Obama administration’s declassification of some details about the government’s collection of U.S. telephone and international Internet records. The president has pledged continuing efforts to lift some of the secrecy surrounding the programs revealed in reports leaked by a former national security contractor to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post.

“There are occasions -- very rare -- when information is incidentally collected on Americans,” he said. “That information is governed by very, very strict rules, and most of it gets thrown out right away.”

Edward Snowden, the former contractor who worked for McLean, Virginia-based Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., has been charged by federal prosecutors with espionage in a sealed criminal complaint, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter said yesterday. The Guardian has reported that Snowden is in hiding in Hong Kong.

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