President Obama on Friday defended his foreign policy record on the tricky problem of Syria’s civil war. He declared that negotiating for a political resolution to the war there was not based on “idealism” but instead a practical necessity as world powers struggle to deal with the rising threat of ISIS.
“That’s not based on some idealism on my part. That’s our hard-headed calculation of what’s going to be required to get the job done,” Obama said.
As he has in the past, Obama said that, under the terms of a deal, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would have to go. But Obama left the door open for a transitional period in the country, saying he is open to “constructing a bridge” that allows other countries allied with Assad’s government to protect their investments in the country.
The comments were a careful nod to the dizzying array of interests in Syria’s future. Russia — one of Assad’s chief allies — began an air campaign in Syria on Sept. 30. Russian President Vladimir Putin characterized the intervention as a war against ISIS, but U.S. officials said the Russian air strikes have also targeted opposition groups supported by Washington.
Iran, another ally of the Assad regime, has inserted its own ground forces and its proxy Hezbollah militia forces into Syria, according to senior U.S. defense and military officials.
Obama’s critics in the Republican presidential field have blamed the White House for allowing Russia and Iran an opportunity to pursue their interests in Syria.
“I think that Assad is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop the bloodletting and for all the parties involved to be able to move forward in a non-sectarian way,” Obama said.
The war in Syria has pushed on for nearly five years, resulting in the deaths of more than 200,000 people and triggering a humanitarian crisis as refugees overwhelm Central and Western Europe.
On Friday, the United Nations Security Council agreed to a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Syria. The plan, agreed to by 15 countries, does not resolve the question of Assad’s future.
As Obama has pushed the diplomatic effort on Syria, Republicans have also trained fire on Obama over his management of Syria and the turmoil of the Arab Spring.
However, not all the candidates agree on the question of the future of Syria. During the Republican debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, trailing behind frontrunner Donald Trump in recent polling, argued against removing Assad from power.
“If we topple Assad the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests,” Cruz said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also ascendant in polls and behind Cruz, has argued in favor of Assad leaving power, though he has charged Obama with signaling weakness to the world by cutting the military budget. “Anti-American dictators, like Assad, who help Hezbollah, who help get those IED's into Iraq — if they go, I will not shed a tear,” Rubio said.