Top Obama Offi­cials Dif­fer on Syr­ian Rebels in Tes­ti­mony to Con­gress

Sharply dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives within the Obama admin­is­tra­tion con­cern­ing the Syr­ian oppo­si­tion. Oppor­tu­ni­ties of work­ing with the oppo­si­tion and the need to step up pres­sure on the Syr­ian pres­i­dent Bashar al-​Assad.

By: Michael R. Gordon

Sharply dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives within the Obama admin­is­tra­tion con­cern­ing the Syr­ian oppo­si­tion emerged pub­licly on Wednes­day when Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry and Defense Sec­re­tary Chuck Hagel made sep­a­rate appear­ances before Congress.


In a long day of hear­ings, Mr. Kerry high­lighted the oppor­tu­ni­ties in work­ing with the oppo­si­tion and stressed the need to step up the pres­sure on the Syr­ian pres­i­dent, Bashar al-​Assad.

Mr. Hagel, joined by Gen. Mar­tin E. Dempsey, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the Pen­ta­gon was mov­ing to deliver med­ical sup­plies and food rations to that oppo­si­tion. But high­light­ing the risks of deeper involve­ment in Syria, Gen­eral Dempsey said the sit­u­a­tion with the oppo­si­tion had become more confused.

The dif­fer­ing assess­ments came as the White House is con­sid­er­ing what steps to take next in a con­flict that has killed more than 70,000 and defied resolution.

At the end of the day, Sen­a­tor Carl Levin, the Michi­gan Demo­c­rat who is chair­man of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, won­dered aloud if the Obama admin­is­tra­tion was send­ing a mud­dled message.

After hud­dling briefly with Mr. Hagel and Gen­eral Dempsey, Mr. Levin told reporters that he had asked them if the United States was look­ing for a way to send a tough mes­sage to Mr. Assad.

“Their answer is yes,” he said. “That’s not what came out today in their tes­ti­mony. We didn’t hear it.”

The day began with Mr. Kerry, who pro­vided his assess­ment of the Syria sit­u­a­tion at a morn­ing hear­ing of the House For­eign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Kerry noted that the United States had been work­ing “very, very closely” with the Syr­ian oppo­si­tion coali­tion, describ­ing the pos­i­tive role that arms deliv­er­ies had played in strength­en­ing the Syr­ian resis­tance — arms sup­plies that he sug­gested had the bless­ing of the United States.

“The United States pol­icy right now is that we are not pro­vid­ing lethal aid, but we are coor­di­nat­ing very, very closely with those who are,” he said.

That obser­va­tion was con­sis­tent with sim­i­lar remarks that Mr. Kerry made in March dur­ing a visit to Saudi Ara­bia, when he said there were mod­er­ate ele­ments of the Syr­ian oppo­si­tion who could be trusted to main­tain cus­to­di­an­ship of the arms they received from out­side donors.

“There is a very clear abil­ity now in the Syr­ian oppo­si­tion to make cer­tain that what goes to the mod­er­ate, legit­i­mate oppo­si­tion is, in fact, get­ting to them,” Mr. Kerry said at the time.

At Wednesday’s hear­ing, Mr. Kerry also noted that he was fly­ing to Istan­bul for a meet­ing on Sat­ur­day with the Syr­ian oppo­si­tion and other nations that are sup­port­ing them.

One goal, he said, would be to iden­tify “what accel­er­ants to Assad’s depar­ture might make the most sense.” He added that the oppo­si­tion “is mak­ing head­way on the ground.”

In con­trast, Mr. Hagel and Gen­eral Dempsey pro­vided a less encour­ag­ing assess­ment of the Syr­ian oppo­si­tion and of the mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion inside Syria dur­ing an after­noon hear­ing of Mr. Levin’s committee.

Gen­eral Dempsey acknowl­edged that last year he had endorsed a pro­posal by David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. direc­tor at the time, to arm vet­ted mem­bers of the Syr­ian opposition.

But he said he had rethought that posi­tion since then and was no longer sure the United States “could clearly iden­tify the right peo­ple” to equip within the ranks of the armed opposition.

“It’s actu­ally more con­fus­ing on the oppo­si­tion side today than it was six months ago,” Gen­eral Dempsey said.

While Mr. Kerry said the rebels were mak­ing head­way, Gen­eral Dempsey said, “There’s a risk that this con­flict has become stalemated.”

At the start of the hear­ing, Mr. Hagel said that the Pen­ta­gon was send­ing a new Army head­quar­ters to replace an ad hoc orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished last year to help the Jor­dan­ian mil­i­tary cope with Syr­ian refugees, pre­pare for the pos­si­ble use of poi­son gas and pro­vide com­mand and con­trol for “sta­bil­ity oper­a­tions,” pre­sum­ably in a post-​Assad Syria. Slightly more than 200 troops would be involved. Since the pur­pose was largely to con­tain the cri­sis, Mr. Levin asked if Pres­i­dent Obama had requested that the Pen­ta­gon rec­om­mend how to apply “addi­tional mil­i­tary pres­sures” on the gov­ern­ment. To Mr. Levin’s sur­prise, they said he had not. “We’ve had national secu­rity staff meet­ings at which we’ve been asked to brief the options, but we haven’t been asked for a rec­om­men­da­tion,” Gen­eral Dempsey said.

“We’ve not been asked,” Mr. Hagel added. “As I said, I’ve not been asked by the president.”

Mr. Levin has writ­ten a let­ter with Sen­a­tor John McCain, the Ari­zona Repub­li­can and a com­mit­tee mem­ber, urg­ing Mr. Obama to con­sider the estab­lish­ment of a safe zone inside Syria for Syr­ian refugees and mem­bers of the oppo­si­tion that would be pro­tected, in part, by Patriot antimis­sile bat­ter­ies in Turkey.

“I believe that the time has come for the United States to inten­sify the mil­i­tary pres­sure on Assad,” Mr. Levin said. But the Pen­ta­gon offi­cials pointed out the com­pli­ca­tions, includ­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that it would encour­age Mr. Assad to esca­late the fight by attack­ing the zone.

Dur­ing the hear­ing, Mr. Levin asked both Mr. Hagel and Gen­eral Dempsey if they agreed with the propo­si­tion that the United States had fallen short of its pol­icy objec­tives in Syria.

“Well, it hasn’t achieved the objec­tive obvi­ously,” Mr. Hagel said. “That’s why we con­tinue to look for other options.”

Gen­eral Dempsey said: “It has never been our goal to see a pro­longed con­flict. So on that basis I would agree.”

Source: the New York Times

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