4 Years Later, Obama Still Calling for Assad to Go, As Death Toll Hits 250K

By Patrick Goodenough | August 18, 2015 | 4:19 AM EDT

President Obama first called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to 'step aside' on August 18, 2011. (AP Photo, File)

(CNSNews.com) – Four years after President Obama first called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the administration on Monday said again that the regime has “lost legitimacy,” and it condemned the deaths of more than 100 civilians in an airstrike on a market.

The White House said Sunday’s attack on a market in the Damascus suburb of Douma, in which scores of women and children were among those killed and injured, was “just another reminder of the inhumane acts perpetrated daily by the Assad regime against the Syrian people.”

“These abhorrent actions underscore that the Assad regime has lost legitimacy and that the international community must do more to enable a genuine political transition,” said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.

State Department spokesman John Kirby expressed similar sentiments.

“As we have said, Assad has no legitimacy to lead the Syrian people,” he said in a statement denouncing the airstrike. “The United States is working with our partners toward a genuine, negotiated political transition away from Assad that brings an end to such attacks and leads to a future that fulfills Syrians’ aspirations for freedom and dignity.”

Tuesday marks the fourth anniversary of President Obama’s first call for Assad to “step aside.” At the time, the conflict between the regime and opponents had cost an estimated 1,800-2,000 lives. The death toll has grown since then by more than 12,000 percent.

The U.N. Security Council said Monday at least 250,000 have been killed in the civil war, including more than 10,000 children. Twelve million people have been forced to flee their homes, with more than four million seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

At his daily briefing Monday a reporter told Kirby that reaction on social media to the administration’s latest condemnation of Assad has been “sarcastic,” with critics saying such statements have had little effect for years.

“So should we just say nothing?” Kirby asked. “Should we just ignore it? I understand that people may – do I expect every word we utter out here to change his behavior? No, of course not. But nor are we going to just ignore it and turn away and not say anything and not speak out against the utter brutality of this man and his regime. So we’re going to continue to say things, and to speak out.”

Kirby said the administration has “an obligation to continue to highlight for people who aren’t necessarily paying attention perhaps as much as they should, to what Assad’s doing to his own people.”

The administration was not just issuing statements, he said.

“That’s why Secretary [of State John] Kerry is taking this so seriously, about trying to help reach a political transition.”

‘Constructive partner’

The administration still hopes the U.S. and Russia can cooperate in finding a solution to the crisis.

“Russia has been a constructive partner on the Iran deal – Secretary Kerry has talked about that – and there are other areas where we think we can cooperate with Russia, including potentially Syria,” Kirby said.

But he was also critical of ongoing Russian support for the Assad regime, saying it “has done nothing to help ease the tensions and stop the violence inside Syria.”

A three-year old attempt to end the conflict through diplomatic means – the establishment of a transitional governing body on the basis of “mutual consent” between regime and rebel representatives – has got nowhere. Kerry met with his Russian and Saudi counterparts in Qatar early this month to discuss the continuing crisis.

But Assad’s legitimacy and future remain in contention.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday reiterated the Kremlin’s support for the “legitimate” Syrian president and criticized Western calls for his departure.

Speaking in Moscow Monday alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Lavrov said that Russia differed with the U.S. and other governments over “the future of the current, incumbent, legitimate leader of the Syrian Arab Republic.”

“While some of our partners believe that it is necessary to agree that at the end of the transitional period the president has to leave, this is unacceptable for Russia,” he said.

Lavrov said a delegation representing all Syrian opposition forces needs to “come up with a constructive platform, without any preconditions, and engage in talks with the delegation of the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Iran’s foreign minister said the Islamic republic agreed with Russia about Syria.

“We don’t believe with outside players making decisions about the legitimacy of this or that government,” said Zarif, whose government is Assad’s closest ally and military backer.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow