Pentagon silent on Syria
Published: August 18, 2011
WASHINGTON – Just two days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissed a reporter probing why the U.S. had not called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to quit, the White House did just that.
President Barack Obama on Thursday demanded Assad “step aside" after months of brutal violence against pro-democracy protestors, some by Syria’s military. Clinton later read a statement calling for Assad “to get out of the way.” But, true to form in such moments, the Pentagon is staying quiet.
On Tuesday, Clinton said the U.S. had no leverage in Syria and would be better off building international support against Assad, especially from Turkey and Arab countries, rather than issuing ultimatums.
“It’s not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go.” she said. “If Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”
Somewhere between that moment and Thursday morning, the adminisration changed it's tune. Obama’s statement read: “The future of Syria must be determined by its people but [Assad] is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. … For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
Clinton later walked to a State Department podium and read: “We understand the strong desire of the Syrian people that no foreign country should intervene in their struggle, and we respect their wishes. At the same time, we will do our part to support their aspirations for a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive. And we will stand up for their universal rights and dignity by pressuring the regime and Assad personally to get out of the way of this transition.”
The European Union also called for Assad to move out.
Pulling back the curtain on Washington reporting just a bit, if the White House has the lead on an administration announcement that is even military or security-related, Defense Department officials largely go silent. That keeps the cameras and the message focused on the president or the designated Cabinet official.
But increasingly such issue’s are a blend of foreign policy, security and military interests. Pentagon reporters still must ask for the defense secretary’s perspective, comments or input.
“I’m not going to get into the internal administration discussions on that,” said Pentagon press secretary George Little, Thursday morning. “I really think that the best place to go would be the White House or the State Department.”
“Would the next step be some sort of military intervention?” tried NBC producer Courtney Kube.
“At this point, it is a foreign policy matter that is best addressed, again, across the river,” Little parried.
None of this banter is unusual. Little even was asked if the Pentagon considered “all options are on the table” with Syria – a generic Defense Department talking point for countless security issues –or if there was any military preparation or reaction from NATO, given sanctions and diplomatic pressure have done little to stop Assad.
“Let’s not get a head of ourselves here,” Little said.
Obama’s firmly pledged to stand by the Syrian fight for human rights but made no suggestion to any potential use of military force.
Skeptics already are weighing in.