WASHINGTON — In the midst of a Senate hearing assembled to tackle how to handle the Islamic State militant group, the familiar but nearly-forgotten name of Syrian President Bashar Assad popped up with surprising regularity.
With the focus on the group commonly known as ISIS or ISIL over the last year, Assad's regime has largely been treated as an after-thought. That seemed to be different during Tuesday's meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
During the roughly three-hour hearing, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey fielded questions on how the Pentagon is handling Assad's government, which still controls large swaths of Syria's western territory, and what the options are for removing him from power.
Without question, Carter said, the US wants Assad gone.
"What we would like to see occur is for Assad to leave the scene, but for the state of Syria not to disintegrate completely because we know what's down that road — sectarian disintegration," Carter said. "Assad needs to go, but the structures of governance need to stay, or we hope they will stay, because we know what life is like without structures of governance in the Middle East."
"Our approach has been, as I think as has been stated clearly for some time, to try to find a political exit for Bashar Assad rather than a US-led military exit," he said.
"For reasons that are easy to understand, our influence with Bashar Assad are — that is, US influence — is not great," Carter elaborated. "And so we are trying to influence those who influence him, to remove himself from the government of Damascus, while keeping intact the structures of governance for the very reason you educe, which is we know what happens in these Middle Eastern countries when the structures of government disintegrate."
Also unclear is whether seeing Assad out of power would actually help or harm the attempts to fight against ISIL, Dempsey said.
"That's a subject of — of great debate, actually," he said. "Depending on how you answer that question will largely shape how you think about solving the problems."
Because the US and its allies seem split on that question, the best thing the Pentagon can do, Dempsey said, is to provide "options" for partners while developing ties between groups that may not have worked together in the past, such as the Kurdish militias and the government of Turkey.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the committee, drove hard at Carter on the issue, trying to box the secretary into saying definitively if the US would or would not engage with Assad's forces if they threatened those American-trained forces.
Carter repeated his statement from May that the US would have "some obligations" to protect the opposition forces, but would not go into details.
During the discussion, McCain interrupted Carter mid-comment a number of times, with rising tensions in the room before the following exchange:
- style="margin-bottom: 0.0001pt;">McCain: "Mr. Secretary, this is not a very pleasant exchange. I'd like to have answers to questions. Will we tell [the trainees] that we will defend them against Bashar Assad's barrel bombing?"
- style="margin-bottom: 0.0001pt;">Carter: "I think we have an obligation to help them when we equip them —"
- style="margin-bottom: 0.0001pt;">McCain: "Will we tell them that?"
- style="margin-bottom: 0.0001pt;">Carter: "We have not told them that yet."
- style="margin-bottom: 0.0001pt;">McCain: "You have not told them that. So you're recruiting people and not telling them that [we're] going to defend them because you haven't made the decision yet, and yet you want to train them quickly and send them in."
Perhaps nothing summed up the Assad situation quite as well as a question at the end of the hearing from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a 2016 presidential hopeful.
Carter was momentarily speechless, sputtering for a bit before answering, "Well, I certainly hope it's Assad."
"Yeah, I do, but I don't think so," Graham said.
Carter didn't disagree.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.