President Obama under pressure to step up action in Syria

Reaction from the 'Special Report' All-Star panel


This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," June 17, 2016. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We welcome alternative views. We welcome input. We welcome dissenting opinion.

GEN. JACK KEANE (RET), FOX NEWS MILITARY ANALYST: This dissent is not unusual in the State Department. What is unusual is the scale of it, 51 diplomats all involved in Syria policy. That is something I've not seen before.


CHRIS WALLACE, GUEST ANCHOR: State Department spokesman John Kirby and retired four-star General Jack Keane with very different reactions today to the news that 51 U.S. diplomats have signed a memo urging the U.S. to intervene in the Syrian civil war.

Let's bring in our panel: Mercedes Schlapp, columnist for The Washington Times; A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of The Hill, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. So Mercedes, what do you make of this memo signed, as we said, by 51 State Department officers critical of President Obama's policy towards Syria?

MERCEDES SCHLAPP, THE WASHINGTON TIMES: It shows that President Obama's strategy is clearly one of hesitation towards Syria. We know that it has been a humanitarian failure. And the mere fact that you're seeing this widespread number of State Department officials basically saying look, we don't agree. We need tougher military action. We know that the diplomatic accords are not working and that Russia and that Syria and that Iran are calling the shots. This is an embarrassment for the Obama administration.

WALLACE: So what they're basically saying, these officers, is we need some military action to put pressure on Assad to come to the negotiating table because right now he's winning and has no reason to settle with the rebels.

SCHLAPP: That's right. Let's think about it. In 2011 President Obama said it's time for Assad to step aside. Assad is going to be ruling and being in power longer than President Obama. President Obama will leave and Assad will still be the dictator of Syria.

What have we seen? We've seen over 200,000 Syrians killed, over 7.6 million Syrians who have been displaced. I mean, this is a tragedy. And the fact is that when you have Russian charges, when you have Syrian charge and Iran, it really is about the U.S. not only just leading from behind, but the fact that the strategy is clearly not working and the State Department is making note of it.

WALLACE: But A.B., just to be clear, what the State Department is calling for is not more air strikes against ISIS They're calling for more air strikes on the regime of the Syrian president.

A.B. STODDARD, THE HILL: Right. And President Obama is well aware that this dissent has been growing at the State Department. When his secretary of state left she too said that she would have supported earlier arming of the rebels and possibly a no-fly zone. She was calling for something stronger. He obviously relented on the red line in 2013. Even Kerry pointed to a report in 2013 basically arguing that if he if he relented on that that it would be an encouragement to Assad to use chemical weapons one more time if not more than that.

So this dissent is not new. As General Keane points out, it's a number. But it's the countries like the UAE and the Saudis are watching them fight ISIS while the Russians help Assad basically decimate the country. We're not helping the rebels who are fighting Assad. We're trying to find ISIS here and there. It's ineffective and the rebels are losing the battle against Assad. And that's what the people are saying, he came to the negotiating table and he laughed it off.

BAIER: But Charles, this is where it becomes kind of a Rubik's Cube, because look at our national interest. Does trying to shake Assad, trying to topple him, trying to create a new government in Syria, does it help our hurt in the fight against ISIS?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: That can be argued either way. But I think what cannot be argued is the fact that the United States accepting the Obama doctrine that Syria is a no-go zone, that the U.S. under him has essentially declared we will not do anything, and engaging only in diplomacy, which you have diplomats say cannot work unless you have an advantage on the field, that that doctrine simply created a vacuum into which Russia has now entered, reappearing in the Middle East for the first time in half a century, and which Iran and Hezbollah have now occupied, all of which are very strongly against U.S. national interests.

Look, there's not going to be a change in policy. Obama is not going to repudiate his own doctrine and start a whole new adventure with six months left to go. But I think the fact, it's not just the number of diplomats who came out against it. It's the fact it's on the front page of the major newspapers, that it was leaked, that it was meant to be seen. And even more important is the fact that these are diplomats demanding military action and essentially retroactively criticizing very heavily Obama's decision years ago when this was feasible to intervene in some way.

Five years ago the Free Syrian Army was a working proposition. ISIS was still a minor element in the conflict. Attacking the Assad forces, weakening the regime and getting rid of it would not have been a boon to ISIS the way it is now.

So I think the policy of this point is impractical. But the fact that you get diplomats whose life is negotiation and not the use of force urging this even at a late date when it probably is not practical, indicates how terrible mistake Obama made when he had the chance to do something and did nothing.

WALLACE: Meanwhile, there was a development next door in Iraq, and that is Iraqi forces with the support of U.S. air strikes have finally pushed into the city of Fallujah, pushing back ISIS. Not taken over the city, but at least moved into the city center. How significant is that, Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: It's very important because that was the first city that ISIS entered. It's sort of the key to Anbar. It means the major population center still controlled by ISIS is Mosul which will be a very difficult proposition. But that Mosul has one advantage. It's not almost entirely Sunni. It's a mixed population. So there should be more internal support. The squeezing in Iraq has been working, but very slowly. In the end, though, the jackpot, the headquarters, the key do defeating ISIS is Raqqa. And so far, we've done nothing.

WALLACE: Mercedes?

SCHLAPP: I think we're going to also analyze whether the surge, the fact that President Obama took out the troops and just decided to move forward on just a smaller group of more elite special forces in Iraq, if that's really going to work.

And what we're seeing is two different scripts being written by the administration. You have the president saying we're making major progress on our fight against ISIS. Then you have CIA director John Brennan coming out and saying, wait a second here. Their expansion is still there. They have -- still have a capacity in spreading throughout the world.

So I think that it becomes a challenge for the president. While this is a victory that we have seen in Iraq today, it is one step forward and one step back, because at the same time what we're seeing is that ISIS is still very much a threat, very much an established organization in the terrorist realm.

WALLACE: And briefly, A.B., the difference just this week between Obama saying that we're making gains against ISIS, and Brennan, the CIA director saying yes, we're making some gains, but in a way it's making it even more dangerous and increasing its global ambitions, was pretty striking.

STODDARD: Yes. They're not on the same page. People in his administration are frustrated about the policy. And I agree with Charles, it is probably too late. If you talk to the people most expert on this, they say ISIS has permeated Iraq so much and Syria so much that it's probably too late to turn back the tide. Fallujah has been held for two and a half years. So it's possible to make incremental gains, but in the long-term, probably not.

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