Declassified

Obama No Longer Seems Sure Assad Must Go

Some White House advisers are pushing to keep the dictator in place.

Thinking again?

Photographer: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

In his prime-time address Sunday night, President Barack Obama listed the diplomatic process on the Syria war, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, as one of the five most important things the administration is doing to fight the Islamic State. Yet behind the scenes, there is growing schism within the administration over whether ending that civil war requires eliminating its cause: the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

And there is increasing evidence that Obama is siding with those advisers who feel that demanding Assad's ouster is holding back broader efforts to defeat the Islamic State. After years of insisting that Assad had to go, last month Obama spoke of a political process in which "we can start looking at Mr. Assad choosing not run." From the Oval Office on Sunday, he made no mention of the dictator whatsoever. 

“With American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process -- and timeline -- to pursue cease-fires and a political resolution to the Syrian war,” said Obama. “Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies, but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL -- a group that threatens us all.”

Everyone at the top level of the Obama administration agrees with the president that resolving the civil war in Syria is necessary to defeat the Islamic State. But when other officials talk about how to fight terrorism in the Middle East, they emphasize that ending Assad’s rule is a crucial and necessary part of that plan.

Kerry said Friday at a press conference in Greece that the exact circumstances of Assad’s departure were negotiable, but that his status would have to be settled before the war could end. On Sunday, National Security Advisor Susan Rice was even more direct during a CNN interview: “We think Assad, by virtue of killing hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, has lost all legitimacy. He has to go.”

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton told an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Sunday that there is no way to defeat the Islamic State while Assad is in power and the U.S. must pursue both goals simultaneously.  “We are not going to get Syrian opposition forces to fight ISIS in earnest without the credible prospect of a transition, and that’s going to take more pressure and leverage,” she said.

The key difference between Kerry and Clinton on the one hand, and some top White House staffers on the other, is whether and how the U.S. should apply that “pressure and leverage” on Assad. Administration officials tell me that senior Obama advisers, including the National Security Council's coordinator for Middle East policy Rob Malley, disagree. Last month, Malley was appointed the president’s new “senior adviser” for the fight against the Islamic State.

Malley’s view is almost certainly reflected in a policy memo released this morning by Philip Gordon, Malley’s predecessor, on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations. Gordon argues for “diplomacy and de-escalation” and says that the current policy of increasing pressure on Assad “will not work” because the dictator is unlikely to go. U.S. aid to Assad’s opposition is a cause of the ongoing violence, according to Gordon.

“Rather than forcing the regime to the table -- essentially to negotiate its own demise -- it has led only to a military stalemate that is benefiting the extreme elements of the opposition, including the Islamic State,” he wrote. “The result has been a growing, open-ended conflict, with devastating humanitarian, strategic, and geopolitical consequences.”

He predicts that tabling "the question of Assad" will allow the diplomatic negotiations with Russia to succeed, and that eventually America’s Arab allies -- who are committed to toppling the dictator -- will grudgingly go along.

The idea that Assad is the lesser of the two evils and keeping him in power is a necessity is gaining traction among some Republican presidential candidates as well. Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have attacked Obama, Clinton and hawkish Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham for pushing for Assad's ouster.

Andrew Tabler, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, reports that there are rumors that some Washington foreign policy pundits are lining up appointments in Damascus to meet with Assad, in order to gauge whether he might be a partner in the war on terrorism. Tabler reminds us the fatal flaw in that thinking: Assad is the magnet for terrorism, and while he rules in Damascus, the opposition will never stop fighting.

“The problem does not lie just in the optics and ethics of Americans engaging with murderous dictators who have tried (and in Assad’s case, failed) to torture, gas and Scud missile their people into submission,” Tabler wrote. “Unless we quickly decide on a mechanism and timetable for Assad’s departure and maintain what is salvageable of the Syrian state, the Islamic State and groups like it will remain -- and America will never be able to leave the Middle East in peace.”

It's a persuasive argument, yet increasingly under fire from those in the White House who no longer consider Assad a stumbling block in the war against jihadism. As that debate plays out, those Syrians we have long encouraged to bring down their tyrannical government continue to die under Assad's barrel-bomb attacks. They do not have the luxury of choosing which evil to fight first.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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