Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged for the first time Thursday that the U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State are benefiting Syrian President Bashar Assad — highlighting a strategy that sources close to the White House say was hotly contested by some of President Obama’s national security advisers.
“Yes, Assad derives some benefit,” Mr. Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon when pressed about the wider implications of the administration’s strategy of hitting only Islamic State targets while avoiding Syrian military forces fighting the same extremists on the ground.
Describing the circumstances inside Syria as complicated, Mr. Hagel said the administration is continuing to call for Mr. Assad’s ouster despite the appearance of aiding him.
The comments shed light on apparent infighting among Mr. Obama’s most senior advisers over the Syria strategy, which has come under increasing fire amid reports that forces loyal to Mr. Assad are using the U.S.-led strikes as cover to advance against moderate opposition groups that the Obama administration considers allies.
“The end result is a strategic mess,” longtime regional security analyst Anthony H. Cordesman wrote last week in a biting critique posted on the website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Assad forces are using the U.S. and allied campaign against the Islamic State to make a massive step up in air attacks on other rebels.”
Such factors have cast doubt on the prospects for what administration officials, including Mr. Hagel, say remains a long-term goal of achieving a political solution to the war in Syria.
More than 200,000 people are reported to have been killed since Syrian protests against the Assad government spiraled into violence in 2011.
Repeated attempts by the Obama administration to bring different sides to the negotiating table failed last year.
The outspoken U.N. envoy to Syria said Thursday that he now is pursuing an “action plan” that involves freezing the conflict in certain areas to allow for humanitarian aid and local steps of a political peace process.
But Staffan de Mistura, the third U.N. envoy to try to bring the war to an end, said he does not “have at this stage a peace plan, which would be presumptuous.”
“I do have an action plan,” Mr. de Mistura said in a briefing to U.N. Security Council members Thursday after returning from Iran and Russia, where he met with two top allies of Mr. Assad.
Obama administration officials say a core part of their strategy in Syria remains channeling weapons to and training moderate rebels to fight Mr. Assad’s forces.
But Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman who appeared Thursday beside Mr. Hagel at the Pentagon, suggested that the process of “recruiting and vetting” rebels is slow and has “not yet begun.”
“The command and control apparatus is in place, the sites have been selected and the reconnaissance conducted to determine what infrastructure we’ll need to accomplish the mission,” said Gen. Dempsey, adding that U.S. allies “are beginning to contribute trainers to the effort.”
Reports Thursday said some 50 members of the moderate Free Syrian Army had joined with a vanguard force of about 150 Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga troops hoping to reclaim control of the northern Syrian city of Kobani from Islamic State militants.
U.S. airstrikes have focused heavily on targets held by the Islamic State — also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS — around Kobani in recent weeks.
The city has emerged as a strategic battleground, and the outcome could determine whether Kurdish and moderate Syrian fighters can achieve significant ground advances in the wake of sustained U.S.-led aerial attacks.
What they are facing, though, is a no-holds-barred force of Islamic State militants.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday highlighted the Sunni Muslim extremists’ grisly tactics by reporting the mass slaughter of Shiite inmates during the June seizure of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul.
Some 600 men from Badoosh prison outside Mosul were forced to kneel along the edge of a ravine and were shot with automatic weapons, the international rights group said in a statement based on interviews with 15 Shiite prisoners who survived the massacre.
The Obama administration arrived at its strategy for fighting the Islamic State after heated private debate within the White House.
Sources who spoke with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity said a crux of the internal debate focused not on the worthiness of the extremists as targets for U.S.-led airstrikes, but rather on whether to include strikes against Syrian military assets.
Several senior officials pushed for strikes on Syrian military targets, but their arguments — along with their access to Mr. Obama — ultimately were squashed by a cadre of White House officials including Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, according to one of the sources.
The White House did not respond to requests by The Times for comment.
The logic among some in the administration, according to the source, was that hitting Syrian assets would damage nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran, a close ally of Mr. Assad.
The source declined to elaborate on who inside the administration resisted such logic, but speculation emerged this week that Mr. Hagel has long stood as an internal critic of the president’s overall Syria strategy.
Thursday’s comments by Mr. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska whom Mr. Obama tapped to head the Pentagon last year, followed reports highlighting his apparent frustration with officials inside the White House.
The New York Times reported this week that Mr. Hagel has said little in administration policy meetings on Syria and sent a “sharply critical” memo to National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice early this month warning that the Syria policy was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify intentions toward Mr. Assad.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke anonymously Thursday with CNN, corroborated the report, saying Mr. Hagel crafted the memo “expressing concern about overall Syria strategy.”
Pressed for a comment on the memo, Mr. Hagel responded: “This is a complicated issue.
“We are constantly assessing and reassessing and adapting to the realities of what is the best approach — how we can be most effective,” he said. “That’s a responsibility of any leader. And because we are a significant element of this issue, we owe the president, we owe the United States Security Council, our best thinking on this. And it has to be honest and it has to be direct.”
Gen. Dempsey bristled at a reporter’s question of whether the general’s access to the president was limited.
“I don’t know where that came from, that I don’t have access to the president,” he said. “In fact, I think in the last three weeks, I’ve probably spent more time with [Mr. Hagel] and the president than I have with my family. I don’t have any difficulty whatsoever gaining access to the president when I need to have it.”
Neither Mr. Hagel nor Gen. Dempsey offered insight on the extent to which administration officials have debated targeting Syrian military assets in the U.S.-led bombing campaign.
But Deputy National Security Adviser Antony Blinken suggested this week that the White House was concerned that such an approach would send Syria into a state of unrecoverable chaos.
“It’s very critical that whatever happens in Syria going forward, that its basic institutions be preserved, including finding ways to preserve the basic military structures, the institutions of the state, etc.,” Mr. Blinken said in a rare public appearance Wednesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“We know what happens from our experience in Iraq over the last decade: When you disband those institutions, it creates a vacuum and that vacuum’s usually filled by bad things,” he said. “So going forward in Syria, I think one of the things that’s going to be critical is getting to a political transition that preserves the institutions of the state and makes it clear to all the different actors in Syria that their equities can actually be protected in a Syrian state.
“That’s obviously a big challenge,” Mr. Blinken said.