Obama Vague on Next Steps in Syria

Obama Vague on Next Steps in Syria
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President Obama said Friday he is “hopeful” Russian President Vladimir Putin will recognize that militarily defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “is not going to be a good long-term strategy.”

But if Putin does not agree, the president offered no new assessments about what might follow. He was asked twice if the United States would support a no-fly zone over Syria, or would feel obliged to defend the anti-Assad Syrian rebels, widely perceived to be Russia’s intended air-strike targets, rather than Islamic State fighters.  

“Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength, but out of weakness,” Obama said during a question and answer session with White House reporters, following his announcement that Education Secretary Arne Duncan will resign at the end of the year and return to Chicago.

The president took more than 20 minutes to answer an initial question about the situation in Syria, defending the administration’s policy to support a political transition in Syria that installs new, but unspecified leadership, and an air-strike-dependent effort to thwart and eventually defeat the might of ISIS, also known as  ISIL. He said the U.S. effort to train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS on the ground “has not worked the way it’s supposed to.” But he offered no next steps.

Asked about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s endorsement this week of a no-fly zone over Syrian air space, Obama said the difference between campaigning for president and governing as president explains the gap between his decision making and his former cabinet secretary’s pitch to voters about what she’d do about Assad and ISIS. 

“If and when she's president, then she'll make those judgments, and she's been there enough that she knows that, you know, these are tough calls,” he said.

“People,” he said, “are looking for easy, low-cost answers” to a situation in Syria that is “a hugely difficult, complex problem,” he added. The lessons of the U.S. engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama added, inform his determination to maintain a focus on battling ISIS, rather than attacking Assad or wandering into a clash with Russia.

Obama rejected critics who say his policies aimed at the Assad regime and the more than 4-year-old civil war in the country worsened a power vacuum that offered an opening to ISIS fighters. But the president’s wariness about entangling the United States in another military mission with uncertain consequences and high costs appeared on full display in the State Dining Room.

“We all want to try to relieve the suffering in Syria, but my job is to make sure that whatever we do, we are doing it in a way that serves the national security interests of the American people, that doesn't lead to us getting into things that we can't get out of, or that we cannot do effectively. And as much as possible, that we're working with international partners,” he said.

Turning to this week’s massacre at a community college in Oregon and his view that new gun regulations could save lives, Obama said he would continue to speak about the issue. He said he will urge a future Congress to act, encourage U.S. voters to seek new legislation, and argue that the National Rifle Association and its financial backing of politicians from both parties should not be the last word on reforms. 

Mentally ill and troubled people will continue to want to harm innocent people, he said. “The only thing we can do is make sure that they can't have an entire arsenal when something snaps in them.”

He did not specify what sort of legislative reforms would control the number of guns Americans could own, especially if they have no criminal records and have met the requirements of existing background checks. 

About the ongoing budget challenges with House and Senate Republicans, Obama said talks are under way to try to reach an agreement by December, when funding for the government runs out. He said he would not sign another short-term continuing resolution in December, as he did this week, and he conceded the obvious: House Speaker John Boehner’s announced departure at the end of October and new GOP leadership complicate the odds of achieving an agreement that could stretch beyond 2016.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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