Obama on Syria: Assad Must Go

Mar 24, 2013

            President Obama said Syrian President Bashar al Assad has lost his legitimacy and “must go,” during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 20. Obama, on his first presidential visit to Israel, warned that the Syrian regime “will be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorists.” But he stipulated that more investigation is necessary to determine if chemical weapons were used. Obama said that the United States prefers to work in an international framework to bring about change in Syria, rather than taking unilateral military action.

            The president, on his first trip abroad since reelection, also visited the West Bank and Jordan. Obama said he was concerned that Syria could become an “enclave for extremism,” during a press conference with King Abdullah II on March 22. The president emphasized the importance of Syria becoming a “model in the Arab world in which people can live side by side,” regardless of their ethnicity or religion. The following are excerpts from Obama’s remarks during press conferences in Israel and Jordan.

            “With respect to Syria, the United States continues to work with allies and friends and the Syrian opposition to hasten the end of Assad’s rule, to stop the violence against the Syrian people, and begin a transition toward a new government that respects the rights of all its people.”

            “Assad has lost his legitimacy to lead by attacking the Syrian people with almost every conventional weapon in his arsenal, including Scud missiles. And we have been clear that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would be a serious and tragic mistake. We also share Israel’s grave concern about the transfer of chemical or other weapon systems to terrorists -- such as Hezbollah -- that might be used against Israel. The Assad regime must understand that they will be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorists…”

            “With respect to chemical weapons, we intend to investigate thoroughly exactly what happened. Obviously, in Syria right now you've got a war zone. You have information that's filtered out, but we have to make sure that we know exactly what happened -- what was the nature of the incident, what can we document, what can we prove. So I've instructed my teams to work closely with all of the countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether or not this red line was crossed.”

            “I will note, without at this point having all the facts before me, that we know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks. We know that there are those in the Syrian government who have expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves. I am deeply skeptical of any claim that, in fact, it was the opposition that used chemical weapons. Everybody who knows the facts of the chemical weapon stockpiles inside Syria as well as the Syrian government's capabilities I think would question those claims. But I know that they're floating out there right now.”

            “The broader point is, is that once we establish the facts I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer. And I won't make an announcement today about next steps because I think we have to gather the facts. But I do think that when you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking potentially at even more horrific scenes than we've already seen in Syria. And the international community has to act on that additional information.”

            “But as is always the case when it comes to issues of war and peace, I think having the facts before you act is very important.”

            “More broadly, as I said in my opening statement, I believe that the Assad regime has lost all credibility and legitimacy. I think Assad must go -- and I believe he will go. It is incorrect for you to say that we have done nothing. We have helped to mobilize the isolation of the Assad regime internationally. We have supported and recognized the opposition. We have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support for humanitarian aid. We have worked diligently with other countries in the region to provide additional tools to move towards a political transition within Syria.”

            “If your suggestion is, is that I have not acted unilaterally militarily inside of Syria, well, the response has been -- or my response would be that, to the extent possible, I want to make sure that we're working as an international community to deal with this problem, because I think it’s a world problem, not simply a United States problem, or an Israel problem, or a Turkish problem. It’s a world problem when tens of thousands of people are being slaughtered, including innocent women and children.”

            “And so we will continue to work in an international framework to try to bring about the kind of change that's necessary in Syria. Secretary Kerry has been working nonstop since he came into his current position to try to help mobilize and organize our overall efforts, and we will continue to push every lever that we have to try to bring about a resolution inside of Syria that respects the rights and the safety and security of all people, regardless of whatever sectarian lines currently divide Syria.”

            “Last point I'll make, which is probably obvious, is this is not easy. When you start seeing a civil war that has sectarian elements to it, and you’ve got a repressive government that is intent on maintaining power, and you have mistrust that has broken out along sectarian lines, and you have an opposition that has not had the opportunity or time to organize itself both politically as well as militarily, then you end up seeing some of the devastation that you’ve been seeing. And we're going to do everything we can to continue to prevent it. And I know that the vast majority of our international partners feel the same way.” March 20, in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Click here for the full transcript.

            "I want to commend His Majesty [King Abdullah II] for his leadership, and I want to commend the Jordanian people for their compassion during an extraordinarily difficult time for their neighbors.  His Majesty was the first Arab leader to publicly call on Assad to step down because of the horrific violence that was being inflicted on the Syrian people.  Jordan has played a leading role in trying to begin a political transition toward a new government.  We're working together to strengthen a credible Syrian opposition."

            "We share Jordan’s concerns about violence spilling across the border, so I want to take this opportunity to make it clear the United States is committed to the security of Jordan, which is backed by our strong alliance."

            "As has been mentioned, during this crisis the Jordanian people have displayed extraordinary generosity, but the strains of so many refugees, inevitably, is showing.  Every day Jordanians are extending a hand of support to neighbors far from home, but this is a heavy burden.  And the international community needs to step up to make sure that they are helping to shoulder this burden."

            "The United States will certainly do our part. We are already the single largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.  Some of this has helped people here in Jordan, and today I'm announcing that my administration will work with Congress to provide Jordan with an additional $200 million in budget support this year, as it cares for Syrian refugees and Jordanian communities affected by this crisis."

            "This will mean more humanitarian assistance in basic services, including education for Syrian children so far from home whose lives have been upended.  And I think, as parents, we can only imagine how heartbreaking that must be for any parent to see their children having to go through the kinds of tumult that they’re experiencing…"

            "Since the start of the situation in Syria, we have stepped up, as not just a superpower, as you phrased it, but also because of basic humanity, to say that Assad needed to go.  We haven’t just led with words, but we’ve also led with deeds.  As I indicated, we're the single largest humanitarian donor to the Syrian people.  We have worked diligently in cooperation with the international community to help organize and mobilize a political opposition that is credible -- because in the absence of a credible political opposition, it will be impossible for us to transition to a more peaceful and more representative and legitimate government structure inside of Syria."

            "And that’s an area where we have been involved on almost a daily basis.  First, Secretary Hillary Clinton helped to spearhead the efforts that formed a coherent Syrian Opposition Council.  Now you’ve got Secretary Kerry, who’s deeply involved in that effort as well.  And we are providing not just advice, not just words, but we’re providing resources, training, capacity, in order for that political opposition to maintain links within Syria and to be able to provide direct services to people inside of Syria, including the kinds of relief efforts that obviously we’re seeing here in Jordan, but there are a whole bunch of people who are internally displaced inside of Syria who need help."

            "I think that what your question may be suggesting is why haven’t we simply gone in militarily?  And I think it’s fair to say that the United States often finds itself in a situation where if it goes in militarily, then it’s criticized for going in militarily; and if doesn’t go in militarily, then people say, why aren’t you doing something militarily?"

            "And my response at this stage is to make sure that what we do contributes to bringing an end to the bloodshed as quickly as possible.  And working in a multilateral context, in an international context, because we think our experience shows that when we lead but we are also working with others -- like the Jordanians, like the Turks, like other interested parties in the region -- then the outcomes are better.  When we are working with the Syrians themselves, so that this is not externally imposed, but rather something that is linked directly with the aspirations and hopes of the people inside of Syria, it will work better."

            "So we are going to continue to use every lever and every bit of influence that we have to effect the situation inside of Syria."

            "You mentioned the issue of chemical weapons.  We have called for, and we know that the U.N. is now moving forward on an investigation of exactly what happened.  We're monitoring the situation ourselves.  I have said publicly that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a game-changer from our perspective, because once you let that situation spin out of control it's very hard to stop, and can have enormous spillover effects across the region."

            "And so we are going to continue to closely consult with everybody in the region and do everything we can to bring an end to the bloodshed and to allow the Syrian people to get out from under the yoke of a leader who has lost all legitimacy because he is willing to slaughter his own people.  And I'm confident that Assad will go.  It's not a question of if, it's when."

            "And so part of what we have to spend a lot of time thinking about is what's the aftermath of that, and how does that work in a way that actually serves the Syrian people -- and, by the way, serves the Syrian people from all walks of life, from all religious affiliations.  Because one of the things that we know is happening in this region is that if we fail to create a model in the Arab world in which people can live side by side -- regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shia or Alawaites or Druze -- regardless of the manner in which they worship their God -- if we don't create that possibility, then these problems are going to occur again and again and again and again."

            "I think His Majesty understands that.  I think the people of Jordan understand that.  And these kinds of sectarian and tribal fault lines are part of what we have to get beyond, because they don't work in a modern world.  They don't create jobs.  They don't put food in the mouths of children.  They don't provide an education.  They don't create a thriving economy."

            "And that's going to be a central challenge not just in Syria, but across the region.  And the United States I think has something to say about that, because part of what makes us a superpower is because we have people of every walk of life, every background, every religion, and if they've got a good idea and they're willing to work hard, they can succeed.  And that's got to be something that's more consistently spoken about not just with respect to the Syria situation, but I think with respect to this enormous moment of both promise but also danger in the Arab world and in North Africa…"

            "Well, I am very concerned about Syria becoming an enclave for extremism, because extremists thrive in chaos.  They thrive in failed space.  They thrive in power vacuums.  They don't have much to offer when it comes to actually building things, but they're very good about exploiting situations that are no longer functioning.  They fill that gap."

            "And that's why I think it's so important for us to work as an international community to help accelerate a political transition that is viable, so that a Syrian state continues to function; so that the basic institutions can be rebuilt, that they're not destroyed beyond recognition; that we are avoiding what inevitably becomes Syrian -- or sectarian divisions -- because, by definition, if you're an extremist then you don't have a lot of tolerance for people who don't share your beliefs. 

            "So this is part of the reason why, for the American people, we've got to recognize we have a stake here.  We can't do it alone.  And the outcome in Syria is not going to be ideal.  Even if we execute our assistance and our coordination and our planning and our support flawlessly, the situation in Syria now is going to be difficult.  And that's what happens when you have a leader who cares more about clinging to power than they do about holding their country together and looking after their people."

            "It's tragic.  It's heartbreaking.  And the sight of children and women being slaughtered that we've seen so much I think has to compel all of us to say, what more can we do?  And that's a question that I'm asking as President every single day.  And that's a question I know His Majesty is asking in his capacity here in Jordan."

            "And what I am confident about is that ultimately what the people of Syria are looking for is not replacing oppression with a new form of oppression.  What they're looking for is replacing oppression with freedom and opportunity and democracy, and the capacity to live together and build together.  And that's what we have to begin planning for now, understanding that it is going to be difficult."

            "Something has been broken in Syria, and it’s not going to be put back together perfectly, immediately, anytime soon -- even after Assad leaves.  But we can begin the process of moving it in a better direction.  And having a cohesive political opposition I think is critical to that…" March 22, in a joint press conference with King Abdullah II

Click here for the full transcript.

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