WASHINGTON — By President Barack Obama’s own admission, U.S. efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad have been pushed to the back burner by a bombing campaign against Islamic State militants that could ultimately help him stay in power.
“There’s a more immediate concern that has to be dealt with,” Obama said of Assad in a broadcast interview that aired Sunday.
While the White House continues to call for Assad’s departure and has consistently condemned his actions in a three-year civil war, diplomatic negotiations to oust him have largely stalled and Obama has shown no appetite for using military power to force him out. Even when Obama was considering strikes last year in retaliation for Assad’s chemical weapons use — a plan he ultimately rejected — officials made clear that regime change was not their goal.
But Assad’s future is coming under fresh scrutiny as the U.S. and its allies launch airstrikes against militants who have gained a stronghold in Syria amid the chaos of the civil war that has left 200,000 people dead. Given that the Islamic State group is one of the Syrian government’s strongest opponents, the strikes have created an unexpected alignment between Obama and Assad that the Syrian president is seeking to exploit in order to gain legitimacy.
Syria’s cauldron of twisted alliances has long made Obama reluctant to take military action to end the civil war, warning advisers that crossing that threshold could leave the U.S. responsible for figuring out Syria’s political future. His rationale for the current airstrike campaign, both in Syria and Iraq, has been described narrowly as a bid to destroy the threat the Islamic State could pose to the West if left unchecked.
Still, Obama acknowledged in his interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that there was a contradiction in both wanting Assad out of power and seeking to degrade his strongest opponent. Obama offered no strategy for keeping Assad from gaining ground, though White House officials later pointed to plans to train and arm more moderate opposition forces who are battling both Assad and the Islamic State group, a process expected to take several months.
Even if the U.S. blueprint for defeating the Islamic State group should succeed, some Middle East analysts say that as long as Assad remains in power, Syria will remain a hotbed for Sunni extremists seeking to oust his government.
“You can’t keep that from happening in any light footprint way without dealing with the fact that Bashar is drawing them in,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, a think tank focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Frederic Hof, the Obama administration’s former special representative on Syria, said that while it’s understandable that Obama may seek to focus first on degrading the Islamic State, the group “cannot be fully neutralized in Syria without neutralizing its biggest recruiter and collaborator: the Assad regime.”
The Assad government has so far used its unexpected alignment with the United States to cast itself as a legitimate partner in the fight against terrorism in the region. During a speech at the United Nations on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country and those in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State should “together stop this ideology and its exporters.”
The Obama administration has insisted that it is not coordinating military strategy or intelligence with the Assad government, though U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power did give her counterpart a heads-up before the Pentagon began the first round of airstrikes against the Islamic State. Administration officials say Obama would go after Assad’s relatively robust air defenses if Syria were to target American planes launching the airstrikes.
Despite the risks in allowing Assad to maintain control of much of Syria, some regional experts say Obama should also take stock of what’s happened in Iraq and Libya, where the U.S. backed the ouster of dictators only to see the governments that followed fail to stand on their own.
“If you destroy the central government, you’ve got the Iraq problem or the Libya problem, which is you’ve got no state left,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
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