WASHINGTON -- A top Obama administration official on Wednesday defended U.S. intervention in the messy Syrian civil war, affirming that the goals of U.S. military involvement there include undermining Syrian President Bashar Assad.
United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power made her comments at the Defense One Summit, where she addressed the question of how the U.S. intends to deal with Assad in remarks that were more direct than other recent declarations from the administration. She described the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State and Syrian targets affiliated with al-Qaeda as a way to help moderate rebels in their fight against the Assad regime.
That characterization stands in contrast to the idea, unpopular among the rebels and previously implied by U.S. officials, that the U.S. investment in the Syrian moderates is only for the purpose of defeating the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.
U.S. assistance will ensure that the rebels "will start to get some relief from the ISIL part in that two-front war," Power said, suggesting that moderate rebels had previously been losing ground because they were fighting both the Islamic State group and Assad. "Then [they'll] better be able to protect themselves against the regime."
U.S. allies against the Islamic State, notably Turkey, have long asked Washington to take a firm stance on whether its campaign intends to seek Assad's ouster. The administration has responded that Assad is an illegitimate ruler who must be removed through a political process—which means little to those currently fighting Assad hour by hour.
In the absence of clear direction from the White House, Assad still has his defenders in the U.S.: Some foreign policy analysts have even suggested that the Syrian president could still serve as a tactical ally against the Islamic State.
But Power on Wednesday blasted the regime's brutal tactics against the opposition, and said the U.S. is committed to building a Syrian force associated with neither the Islamic state nor the current government in Damascus.
"We can't have a choice between beheaders and forced converters on one hand and barrel bomb users and chemical attackers on the other," Power said.
She also lamented pundits' hand-wringing over the Obama administration's other foreign intervention, in Libya in 2011, where it helped to topple another authoritarian regime.
"There is too much of, 'Oh look, this is what intervention has wrought,'" Power said.
The ambassador is considered one of the key decision-makers behind the operation in Libya, a country that has become increasingly unstable since the U.S. and the international community intervened in 2011. Its elected government is currently struggling to hold its own against Islamist militias, various tribal factions and -- according to a report by German magazine Der Spiegel -- an outpost of the extremist Islamic State group.
Power argued Wednesday that because U.S. nation-building hasn't been successful of late doesn't mean it won't work at all. She said decades of oppressive rule had left Libya with a unique potential for violence. "I think we have to be careful about overdrawing lessons or ascribing one particular action a whole set of consequences," she added.
The ambassador used that reasoning to suggest that critics should not judge the U.S. intervention in Syria based on the outcome of its intervention in Libya. Power noted that Syria is hardly "a model society" despite the U.S. not having intervened for the first two years of the country's revolution.
Some attendees at the analyst-filled conference were unconvinced.
— Alex Ward (@alexwardb) November 19, 2014
At least 190,000 have died in Syria's ongoing civil war, according to August figures from the United Nations.The Obama administration, along with much of the international community, has said the instability in Syria is to blame for the rise of the extremist Islamic State group.
The U.S. became involved in the Syrian civil war last spring when President Barack Obama authorized the CIA to begin arming the non-extremist opposition to Assad's government. The administration, working alongside international partners, has dramatically increased its involvement in Syria since the summer, striking Islamic State and al-Qaeda targets inside Syria.
Obama has, with congressional support, also authorized the Pentagon to begin its own program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels -- while those groups have complained that as they wait for the expanded assistance, they are suffering major setbacks and are growing skeptical of the U.S.
Power, a noted human rights advocate, has long supported Western military intervention abroad for humanitarian purposes. In May, the ambassador made comments that were interpreted by some as a veiled rebuke of the administration's failure to act to end suffering in Syria -- and prompted comparisons to the more forceful rhetoric she used before joining the administration.
Clarification: Language has been amended to clarify that the goal of U.S. military intervention in Syria is not the violent overthrow of the Assad regime.