In case you thought the White House policy on Syria was not incoherent enough, consider what transpired Thursday.
At the White House press briefing, there was this exchange:
Q: What is the president’s assessment of conditions on the ground? As I said, we’ve had reports of rebels fighting rebels now. Is it getting to a point where use of force by the U.S. in some fashion or providing weapons doesn’t really correct the situation or foster a political resolution?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, we’re constantly assessing the situation. There’s no question that the situation on the ground is serious and has been for some time. [Bashar al-]Assad is systematically killing his own people, and has been. The opposition continues to fight back and resist Assad. And while there are ups and downs on the battlefield and changes in momentum, the fact is, Bashar al-Assad will never again rule Syria in the way that he did before and the Syrian people demand, rightfully, new leadership and a new government.
And we are focusing our efforts to help bring about the day when a transition can take place that will help Syria turn the corner towards a cessation of violence and reconciliation, and the possibility of a government that respects the rights of all of Syria’s people. . . .
Q: Let me go back to Syria, if I could, just for a second, and could I ask you to explain your comment a moment ago, which seemed new to me? You said that President Assad would never rule Syria the same way again. What did you mean by that? And is that the American goal, and is that enough?
MR. CARNEY: Our view is that there is no circumstance under which Bashar al-Assad will enjoy — or reclaim, rather, his ironclad rule over Syria. And the Syrian people have been clear that there is no future role of any kind for Assad in Syria. Now, it has been our stated position and policy that Assad has long since forsaken his legitimacy as a ruler. He is bathed in the blood of his own people and continues to wage war against his own people. So there’s no question in our minds that he is no longer a legitimate leader of that country and of the Syrian people. There is a terrible conflict now in Syria, a violent, bloody conflict. And that is Assad’s responsibility. And we are providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, so many of whom have been displaced by this conflict, and providing direct assistance to the opposition. We’ll continue to do that, and we’ve stepped up that assistance and we’ve worked with our partners and allies to help the opposition form itself and become more cohesive and effective. And we’ll continue that effort.
But there’s no question that this is a very difficult time in Syria and for the Syrian people. But our view is Syria’s future and its hope lies in a post-Assad government that respects the rights of all of its people.
Q: But what I’m trying to, though, get clarified is when you say that he’ll never rule Syria the same way again, that seems to leave open that he could continue to rule Syria if he changes his ways.
MR. CARNEY: No, no, no. I certainly did not mean to imply that. I think what I meant is that his time as the basically dictator of Syria and the ruler — the ironclad ruler of Syria is over. And while there are shifts in momentum on the battlefield, Bashar al-Assad, in our view, will never rule all of Syria again. And we don’t believe he should or that he has any right or legitimacy to do that.
And we are providing assistance to the opposition, and providing humanitarian relief to the Syrian people who have been so miserably affected by the actions of Bashar al-Assad.
The idea that Assad — after slaughtering 100,000 of his people and using chemical weapons — could remain in Syria to rule over part of the country is morally and strategically appalling.
A former U.S. official told me: “It is awful. It is a defeatist signal, to all
Syrians fighting the regime, and to Russia, Hezbollah and Iran. It means that
the administration is lowering its sights and preparing for Assad to stay in
Other Syria-watchers agree. Tony Badran from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies e-mailed me: “This statement, like so many others like it, only underscores the total lack of a US strategy in Syria. The WH’s assertion that there will be a post-Assad Syria is premised on the fantasy of a political transition, where Assad will agree to leave, along with an entire circle of close associates that form the core of his regime.” He points out: “To me, this doesn’t correspond to reality. What’s more, the assertion that Assad will never again rule ‘all of Syria’ — even if it’s entirely possible, or even likely — is hardly sufficient, as far as US interests are concerned.”
Ironically, Badran observes, this is the Iranian backup plan. “The Iranian Plan B in Syria is to consolidate a regime enclave encompassing the Alawite coastal region and stretching all the way to Damascus via Homs along the border with Lebanon. This would adjoin the two Iranian protectorates in western Syria and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.” He concludes: “The notion of a protracted stalemate therefore does not deal a blow to Iran in Syria. Only Assad’s defeat, and the removal of Iranian influence from Syria, would achieve that.”
Others agree that this is in essence a capitulation to Iranians. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute reiterates: “That’s exactly what the Iranians, Assad and Hezbollah have been planning in the absence of total victory.” Giving voice to the disgust communicated by an array of the president’s critics, she sums up: “Great that we’re taking strategic cues from the Iranians.”
To make this all the more ridiculous, consider that this shocking reversal is made in an off-hand manner by Jay Carney. (Will we hear from him that containment of a nuclear-armed Iran is feasible after all?) When the White House does this sort of thing, it communicates to friends and foes a complete lack of seriousness. And as far as the Syrian people are concerned, this is an unimaginable betrayal.