One year after nearly ordering airstrikes against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, President Obama said Sunday he’s aware U.S. policy now is somewhat contradictory, as the American air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria will directly benefit an Assad regime that continues to murder its own people in a bloody civil war.
But the president defended that contradictory policy during an interview on “60 Minutes” and argued that while Assad remains an illegitimate leader, the more pressing concern is the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, which controls significant territory across both Iraq and Syria and threatens to destabilize the entire region.
U.S. military forces, in conjunction with a handful of Arab allies, continue to bomb Islamic State targets in both Iraq and Syria, and the president conceded Sunday that the Syria aspect of the campaign will greatly aid Assad.
“I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance. We are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad,” the president said.
“For a long-term political settlement, for Syria to remain unified, it is not possible that Assad presides over that entire process. On the other hand, in terms of immediate threats to the United States, ISIL, Khorasan Group, those folks could kill Americans,” he said. “There’s a more immediate concern [than Assad] that has to be dealt with.”
In addition to bombing Islamic State targets, the U.S. also has ramped up training and military assistance to some elements of Syrian opposition forces fighting against Assad.
Despite the fact that the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — has gained a great deal of power and influence in Syria, Mr. Obama said he still believes there is a moderate element to the Syrian opposition that can succeed if given the proper help.
“There is,” the president said when asked if a moderate Syrian opposition exists. “But right now it doesn’t control much territory. It has been squeezed between ISIL on the one hand and the Assad regime on the other.”
One year ago, Mr. Obama was on the verge of ordering military strikes against Mr. Assad’s forces after they used chemical weapons against rebel forces. Those strikes were scrapped after Mr. Assad agreed to give up his nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons.