- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2015

President Obama’s former top adviser on Middle East policy says the time has come for the administration to rethink its demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad must step down — a stipulation that has underpinned the White House’s approach to Syria’s war for the past four years.

The burgeoning humanitarian crisis from the war, coupled with Washington’s failure to train a moderate Syrian opposition army and Russia’s “dangerous new escalation” in support of forces loyal to Mr. Assad has upped the urgency for the administration to “revisit some fundamental questions about the conflict,” Philip Gordon said.

While Mr. Gordon himself helped craft the administration’s policy as the White House coordinator for the Middle East from 2013 through April of this year, he now says it is “increasingly difficult to deny what has should have been apparent for some time: The current policy of the United States and its partners to increase pressure on Assad so that he “comes to the table” and negotiates his own departure must be rethought.”

In a column published Friday by Politico Magazine, Mr. Gordon argued that what is now “needed is a new diplomatic process that brings all the key external actors to the table and agrees on a messy compromise to deescalate the conflict — even if that means putting off agreement on the question of Assad.”

His assertion comes amid mixed signals from current administration officials over how they intend to adjust their policy toward the war now that Russia, which stands with Iran as the Assad regime’s top international backer, has moved an increasing number of military assets and ground troops into Syria.

The White House said Thursday that President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will meet face-to-face Monday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The stakes of the meeting are invariably high, as the two are expected to discuss growing tensions over the deteriorating situation in Syria and other areas of conflict between the former Cold War foes.

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Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday that Russia’s expanding military buildup in Syria could “pour gasoline on the [Islamic State] phenomenon,” because Moscow is bent on backing the embattled Syrian president — one of the extremist group’s top enemies.

The Obama administration has long called for Mr. Assad’s ouster on grounds that he has authorized the Syrian military to engage in genocide-like attacks on innocent Syrians throughout the nation’s multi-front civil war.

Mr. Carter told reporters at the Pentagon that any successful effort to crush the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, without simultaneously pursuing a political transition away from Mr. Assad will only “fuel the very kind of extremism that underlies ISIL.”

At the same time, however, the defense secretary suggested the Obama administration is willing to work with Russia and may be easing off its long-held position that Mr. Assad’s ouster.

And, he suggested there are signs Moscow may be moving toward abandoning the Syrian leader.

Mr. Carter said he spoke last week with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, and came away with the impression that he genuinely share’s Washington’s “desire to defeat ISIL” as well as “the need for a political transition in Syria.”

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