Obama blames Aleppo ‘atrocities’ on Assad, Russia
President Barack Obama said his administration would press for a broader cease-fire in Syria and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Aleppo, and placed blame for atrocities in the city on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
“The responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone,” Obama said at his last annual end-of-the-year news conference at the White House on Friday. “This blood and these atrocities are on their hands.”
Aleppo fell to Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, earlier this week.
At the same time, Obama said that as the U.S. president, he felt a measure of personal responsibility for the suffering and deaths of innocent civilians in Syria and elsewhere.
“I’ve felt responsible when kids were being shot by snipers. I felt responsible when millions of people have been displaced,” he said. “I feel responsible for murder and slaughter that’s taken place in South Sudan that’s not being reported on.”
After hours of meetings about diplomatic, military and humanitarian options for the U.S. to take in Syria, Obama said he felt he’d taken the best course available “while also having to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States.”
Critics of the president, including his successor, Donald Trump, have advocated greater U.S. involvement in the war. In a speech Thursday night in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Trump said he would establish safe zones within Syria paid for by neighboring Gulf States.
“I will get the Gulf States to give us lots of money, and we’ll build and help build safe zones in Syria, so people can have a chance,” Trump said. “So they can have a chance.”
Obama has dismissed the idea of safe zones, arguing that it would require a massive investment of U.S. forces and money and raise the risk of a military confrontation with Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry estimated earlier this year that establishing Syrian safe zones would require between 15,000 and 30,000 U.S. troops.
The president said Friday that he will continue to consult with Trump so that he can make a decision once he’s sworn in. “Between now and then these are decisions I have to make,” he said.
Building safe zones could also distract from the effort to combat Islamic State forces within Syria and make it harder to reach a political settlement ending the country’s six-year long civil war, the White House has said.
Instead, Obama condemned the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers over their brutal assault on Aleppo, which has seen schoolyards and hospitals bombed and countless civilian casualties. Tens of thousands of rebels and residents are now evacuating the city under a cease-fire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey.
But their fate remains uncertain, with the possibility of retribution or conscription by Assad’s forces looming over the evacuation.
Obama said Friday that an “impartial observer force” should supervise the evacuation of civilians and rebels from Aleppo through “safe corridors” and ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered.
A “broader cease-fire” could “serve as a basis of a political rather than military solution,” he said. “Over the long term, the Assad regime cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy.”
Multiple cease-fire agreements between Russia and the U.S. that would end fighting between Assad’s forces and rebel fighters have been ignored.
Obama has faced criticism from within his own administration over his reluctance to intervene in Syria. Kerry has said that the U.S. lost diplomatic capital when the president decided not to seek congressional approval to take direct military action after Syria violated his “red line” by using chemical weapons. This summer, more than 50 diplomats at the State Department signed a letter criticizing the president’s Syria policy and encouraging military strikes against the Assad regime.