WASHINGTON — U.S. President Obama’s national security adviser insisted in a Monday speech that the creation of a post-Assad transitional authority in Syria would be the “only” long-term means of ending bloodshed in the Middle Eastern nation’s ongoing civil war.
“Ultimately, the only sustainable way to end the suffering in Syria is through a negotiated political solution, starting with the creation of a representative transitional authority that organizes elections and meets the needs of the Syrian people,” said Susan Rice, who has served as the president’s top security aide since July. “A cease-fire and a political solution are also, as a practical matter, the only way to eliminate completely the Syrian chemical weapons threat.”
Still, Rice reiterated administration statements that the proposed limited U.S. military strikes against targets related to Syria’s chemical weapons would not seek to eliminate President Bashar Assad, who has led the nation since his father’s death in 2000.
“These strikes would not aim to topple Assad or by themselves to effect regime change,” she said, speaking before an audience at the New America Foundation think tank in Washington. “Doing so would require a much larger and sustained military campaign, putting American forces in the center of this civil conflict. And as President Obama has made clear, it is neither wise nor necessary to do so.”
Obama has called for a restricted attack by U.S. armed forces in response to an Aug. 21 gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which his administration says resulted in more than 1,400 civilian deaths, including many children. Congress is debating the president’s push for a bipartisan resolution authorizing the military action.
Rice on Monday aimed to bolster the administration’s domestic and international campaign to generate support for selected missile strikes aimed instead at punishing the regime. Attack objectives would be to degrade the Syrian military’s capacity for additional chemical attacks, and deter Assad or others in the region from any further use of weapons of mass destruction.
The White House adviser also overtly tied the proposed strikes to a desire to send a message to Iran not to develop a nuclear-weapon capacity.
“Countering Syria’s use of chemical weapons … has implications for our efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran,” Rice said. “The policy of the United States is clear: We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. With allies and partners, we continue to pursue a comprehensive strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, including diplomacy, pressure and increasing sanctions.”
It also could send a message more broadly to the region and the world, she said.
“Standing up to Syria’s use of chemical weapons advances our broader goals in the Middle East,” Rice told the audience. “Conversely, by allowing Assad to act with impunity, everything else becomes even harder, from countering terrorism to defending human rights, from promoting peace to ensuring our energy security, and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
Washington’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Rice implied that if the United States failed to respond militarily to the Ghouta attack, some around the world might question U.S. resolve to retaliate with a “full range” of weaponry available in response to future WMD attacks. This appeared to be a veiled reference to Washington’s credibility in deterring nuclear war by threatening a nuclear response.
“Rejecting the limited military action that President Obama strongly supports would raise questions around the world as to whether the United States is truly prepared to employ the full range of its power to defend our national interest,” Rice said. “Other global hot spots might flare up if belligerents believe the United States cannot be counted on to enforce the most basic and widely accepted international norms.”
Rice summarized the administration’s intelligence case for concluding that the Syrian government was to blame for the Aug. 21 chemical attack, but did not offer additional evidence or elaboration that some pundits are calling on the White House to divulge as a way of strengthening its public case for retaliation.
Although world leaders at the G20 economic summit last week in St. Petersburg failed to unanimously offer Obama backing for his proposed military action, Rice sought to underscore growing global support for the limited strikes.
She rattled off 10 G20 nations — from Australia to the United Kingdom — that have blamed Assad for the chemical attacks and signed onto a statement saying that “those who perpetrated these crimes must be held accountable.”
Another nine nations, including Germany and Qatar, subsequently endorsed the statement.