The recent U.S.-Russia deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons found the White House toning down its previous calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign, but the State Department now says the Obama administration still believes Mr. Assad will have to be removed before peace can be achieved in the Mideast nation.
During a closed-door meeting in New York on Wednesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry reassured the head of the political arm of the opposition that is fighting for Mr. Assad’s ouster that “it is impossible for us to imagine that he would play any role” in a postwar transition government in Syria.
According to a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity with reporters in New York, Mr. Kerry offered the assurance after Syrian Opposition Coalition Chairman Ahmed Assi al-Jarba had expressed “disappointment” over the fact that the Obama administration had not followed through with threats to carry out a U.S. military strike on forces loyal to Mr. Assad.
The exchange underscored the delicate task now faced by the Obama administration in attempting to maintain influence over Syria’s political opposition, while also pursuing a high-stakes diplomatic deal over Syria’s chemical weapons with Russia — President Assad’s most powerful ally.
Intelligence agencies in Washington and across Europe have claimed the evidence is overwhelming that forces loyal to Mr. Assad carried out last month’s horrific chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. And Mr. Obama made global headlines in early September by suggesting a U.S. military strike on those forces was imminent and necessary to show Mr. Assad that future chemical weapons use would not be tolerated.
But Mr. Obama put his threat on the back-burner in mid-September after Mr. Kerry inked a surprise deal with Russia in which Mr. Assad suddenly agreed to work with international inspectors to secure and destroy his chemical weapons.
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As ink dried on the deal, foreign policy insiders told The Washington Times that the unexpected twist found Mr. Assad suddenly “legitimized” by Washington, since the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons will not be able to proceed without the Syrian president playing a key role.
At a minimum, the deal appeared to represent a kind of reversal in posture by the Obama administration, whose most senior foreign policy operatives had spent the better part of the past two years tirelessly pushing the message that “Assad must go.”
Asked Wednesday whether the administration has any concern that Syria’s political opposition now feels “sold out” by the shifting winds of U.S. policy toward Mr. Assad, the senior State Department official said that “this ultimately is about negotiation between Syrians.”
“In terms of being sold out,” the official said that during the meeting with Syria’s opposition leader in New York, Mr. Kerry “highlighted that our vision of a transition governing body does not [include] the presence of Bashar al-Assad.”
“There isn’t anyone being sold out,” the official said.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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