Obama Syria Policies Scuttled Regime Change, White House Says

Obama Syria Policies Scuttled Regime Change, White House Says
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President Trump condemned Syria’s gassing of civilians, including children, in a rebel-held town on Tuesday, while his spokesman blamed President Obama for failing to enforce a “red line” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he described during a news conference in 2012.

Neither Trump nor his spokesman detailed how the administration expects to change course with Assad in the wake of the deaths and injuries inflicted on dozens of civilians in what became the latest gruesome chapter chronicled inside Syria since 2011.

Assad has denied using chemical weapons, and the attacks remain under investigation.

Days ago, the Trump administration announced that Assad’s continued control of Syria was a “political reality,” although on Tuesday Press Secretary Sean Spicer answered “yeah” when asked if the Syrian people would be better off without the dictator in power.

Obama’s interest in regime-change in Syria evaporated in the wake of the 44th president’s “weakness” and lack of resolve following his “red line” rhetoric, Spicer asserted.

“What we need to do is fundamentally do what we can to empower the people of Syria to find a different way,” he added.

In 2013, Obama ordered additional U.S. support for Syrian rebels without directly arming them or putting U.S. combat forces on the ground there. The official U.S. limit for advisers and special operations forces in Syria had been about 500, but the exact number of U.S. military in the country today is unclear. In early March, the Trump administration ordered an additional 400 troops. U.S. airstrikes continue.

Trump, his spokesman said, is reviewing potential responses with his advisers and with other world leaders. “We have plenty of time to plot a way forward,” Spicer told reporters. “He’s not here to telegraph what we’re going to do.”

Reading from a prepared statement later released by the White House, Trump’s spokesman said, “The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack,” adding the apparent use of chemical agents against civilians “cannot be ignored.”

Although the White House would not reveal its Syria options, the president’s spokesman drew contrasts with Obama’s rhetoric and “lack of action.”

“It’s important to acknowledge the difference in the change in our posture and how we will go out from here, so I think it is a big one,” the press secretary added.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley scheduled for Wednesday an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which the United States currently chairs. British officials said the apparent use of chemical weapons inside Syria amounted to a war crime. But Russia and China voted against a U.N. resolution in February seeking to condemn Syria for violence against civilians, and calling for an end to Assad’s repression. It was the seventh time Russia sided with the Assad government, and China has done the same six times since 2011.

In 2013, Russia helped broker an agreement between the United States and the Assad government to destroy its chemical stockpiles. Efforts at the conclusion of the Obama administration to negotiate an end to hostilities in Syria with Russia’s help came to naught.

Now, more than 70 days into his presidency, Trump is juggling a few of the most intractable global problems of the last decade. How the president plans to lead through military operations, terror risks, aspirations for negotiated peace, and frictions over everything from human rights to trade and other economic challenges has appeared more improvisational than planned.

Trump spoke with President Vladimir Putin by phone Monday to extend U.S. condolences following a suicide bombing on the subway in St. Petersburg, Russia, which killed 14 people.

On Thursday and Friday, the president will host President Xi Jinping of China at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. The two leaders will discuss a range of economic and security issues, including North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. “The clock has now run out and all options are on the table for us,” a senior administration official said Tuesday when asked to describe Trump’s perspective on the North Korean nuclear threat. “It is now urgent.”

On Wednesday, Trump will meet at the White House with King Abdullah of Jordan, whose country has shouldered the brunt of the refugee outflow sparked by Assad’s civil war.

ISIS fighters operating inside Syria have complicated conditions on the ground. Moscow came to Assad’s aid last year with Russian airstrikes targeted in the same area as Tuesday’s chemical assault. Putin has maintained that Russia’s involvement from the air is focused on deterring ISIS and terrorism.

The evidence of chemical poisoning this week, which the White House termed “heinous,” has added to the horrors that forced a massive outflow of Syrian refugees estimated at nearly 5 million spanning more than five years. Another 6.3 million people have been displaced within the country’s borders.

Trump’s January executive order imposing a temporary U.S. ban on international travelers to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries also barred entry to refugees from Syria for an indefinite period, because of the president’s concerns that terrorists could gain entry under the cloak of refugee status. After courts blocked Trump’s controversial travel ban, the president issued a revised version that continued to bar foreign nationals from Syria and five other countries, but lifted the Syrian refugee ban. The revised version, which was to go into effect March 16, is also blocked in federal court.

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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