WASHINGTON -- Giving little relief to those skeptical of U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war, President Barack Obama on Monday said he understands the dangers of mission creep and was determined to avoid them.
Obama, in a taped interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, defended his decision to provide weaponry to Syrian rebels, saying it followed careful and comprehensive deliberation. His policy, he added, is meant to strike the right balance and is not open-ended.
It is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments because if it's not working immediately, then what ends up happening is six months from now people say, 'Well, you gave the heavy artillery. Now what we really need is X, and now what we really need is Y,' because until Assad is defeated in this view, it's never going to be enough, right? Now, on the other side there are folks who say, you know, 'We are so scarred from Iraq. We should have learned our lesson. We should not have anything to do with it.' Well, I reject that view as well because the fact of the matter is, is that we've got serious interests there, and not only humanitarian interests, we can't have the situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan, which in turn borders Israel.
Obama’s middle-ground approach comes at a time of intense scrutiny over what his administration’s Syria policy will be. The president told Rose his objective is ousting Assad so that a “functioning” and “representative" Syria could exist.
Getting to that point, however, has been complicated and bloody. An estimated 90,000 Syrians have died in the fighting. And while Obama has called for Assad to go, he had resisted pressure for stronger measures until recently.
The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the White House had gamed out an aggressive approach to the conflict prior to the conclusion by U.S. officials that Assad had used chemical weapons on the rebel forces. That conclusion persuaded the president to enact the new policy.
But that policy remains something of a mystery. The administration said it will supply more weapons and ammunition to the rebels, along with $300 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees. Obama, in his interview, said he retained all options, but would not commit to going further. He specifically rejected calls for a no-fly zone or heavy artillery.
“The last point I’d make on this is a lot of critics have suggested that if we go in hot and heavy, no-fly zones, setting up humanitarian corridors, and so forth,” he said. “That that offers a simpler solution. But the fact of the matter is, for example, 90 percent of the deaths that have taken place haven’t been because of air strikes by the Syrian Air Force. Syrian Air Force isn’t particularly good. They can’t aim very well. It’s been happening on the ground.”
Obama's comments come at a particularly sensitive time. At the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on Monday, his spokesmen acknowledged that Russia -- the other main third-party actor in the Syrian civil war -- remained on a different strategic page than the United States.
“We’ve clearly had differences over Syria in the past and continue to have differences as it relates to principally the fact that the United States believes that any transition in Syria has to involve Bashar al-Assad leaving power,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said on Monday. “However, they do believe and recommitted themselves to working for a negotiated, political settlement to end the violence in Syria.”
At home as well, Obama faces difficulty selling his Syria policy. While foreign policy hawks cheered the initial announcement to arm the rebels, there was an undercurrent of concern that the initiative was too late or didn’t go far enough. On the flip side, many of the president’s Democratic supporters, and some dovish Republicans, warned that there was little strategic upside to getting involved in a bloody sectarian conflict in the Middle East.
By trying to split the difference, Obama may find the right policy and political mix. He may also end up pleasing no one.
“We know what it's like to rush into a war in the Middle East without having thought it through," Obama said. "And there are elements within the Middle East who see this entirely through the prism of a Shia-Sunni conflict and want the United States to simply take the side of the Sunnis. And that I do not think serves American institutes. As I said before, the distinction I make is between extremists and those who are recognized in a 21st century world that the way the Middle East is going to succeed is when you have governments that meet the aspirations of their people, that are tolerant, that are not sectarian. And working through that is something that we have to do in deliberate fashion."