State Dept. Slaps Down Russian Reporter’s Suggestion US Regime Change Promotion, Not Assad, to Blame for ISIS

By Patrick Goodenough | September 16, 2015 | 1:58 AM EDT

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meet in Moscow in 2006. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, File)

( – State Department spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday slapped down a Russian reporter who suggested the presence and growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) in Syria was attributable not to the Assad regime but to the U.S. promoting regime change in the region.

Explaining why the U.S. maintains that President Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of a coalition against ISIS – as Moscow is arguing – Kirby told a daily briefing the Syrian leader is the reason that ISIS and other extremist groups “have been allowed to fester and grow and sustain themselves inside Syria.”

A reporter from Russia’s state news agency ITAR-Tass challenged Kirby’s point.

“The assertion that you are making that he’s the reason for ISIL is also disputed,” said Andrei Sitov. “Many people in my part of the world believe that the reason for the ISIL existence is the policy of regime change that is pursued by the U.S. and the American allies. What is your response to that?”

“I’m not going to dignify that with an answer,” Kirby replied, turning to another reporter. “Next question?”

ISIS’ precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, expanded its operations to Syria in 2012. It forms part of a diverse rebellion aimed at toppling Assad, as part of its broader “caliphate” aspirations across the region.

Kirby also dismissed the notion of a second coalition against ISIS involving Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. Russia could help the existing international anti-ISIS coalition, but there is no place in it for Assad, he said.

“There is an international coalition fighting ISIL, 62 some-odd nations,” he said. “We’d welcome a constructive role by Russia in those efforts. But it can’t begin and it can’t continue under a condition where the Assad regime continues to get military support.”

Amid reports that Russia is building up a military presence in Syria, President Vladimir Putin has increasingly been calling for his ally in Damascus to be drawn in to the campaign against ISIS.

The administration’s position remains that Assad must leave. But its military strategy in Syria – airstrikes and support for vetted rebels – is focused on fighting ISIS, not the regime, which is says must depart as a result of a negotiated political transition.

Kirby was asked during the briefing about Russia’s unfolding approach to the crisis.

“Are you concerned at all that Russia is trying to create its own coalition that is also an anti-ISIL coalition, but is, at the same time, a pro-Assad coalition?” asked Matt Lee of the Associated Press.

“Are you concerned at all that they could bring in other countries, likeminded countries – and there are several that we know of – and that basically there could be two competing coalitions?”

“There’s no need for another international coalition against ISIL when 60-plus nations are already aligned and having an effect against ISIL – not just in Syria but also in Iraq,” Kirby said.

“So I’ll let the Russians speak for themselves in terms of what they may be trying to achieve, but I would tell you that there’s already an international coalition dedicated to that.

“As we’ve said, we would welcome a constructive role by Russia to aid those efforts,” he added. “But you know who can’t be a part of that coalition, is Bashar al-Assad and the regime.”

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow