Senior White House official Ben Rhodes told Syrian-American activists at a gathering on Wednesday that he was “not proud” of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, according to three people who participated in the interchange.
But Rhodes waved off any suggestion that the United States should be responsible for a conflict that has left millions displaced and hundreds of thousands dead, those attendees said.
“We aren’t proud of our Syria policy—but we don’t have any good options... nothing we could have done would have made things better,” Rhodes said, according to three individuals present: Ibrahim Al-Assil, a fellow at the Middle East Institute; Kenan Rahmani, a policy adviser with the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, and a third individual, who requested to stay anonymous.
Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council disputed the activists' characterization of the conversation. Rhodes “in no way indicted or distanced himself from our Syria policy,” Price said.
The three activists, as well as a fourth activist, the Syrian American Council’s Omar Hossino, were present for various parts of the conversation with Rhodes. Hossino told The Daily Beast that he began to weep as he told Rhodes about the cost in human life that had taken place as a result of the war, and excused himself from the conversation.
“We’re not the ones killing Syrians. [President Bashar al-]Assad is the one killing people,” Rhodes said, according to three of the individuals present.
It was, as one advocate said, a poor explanation. “It would be as if the Bush administration argued that ‘a hurricane destroyed New Orleans, so it’s not our responsibility,’” Al-Assil told The Daily Beast.
Rhodes has been the talk of media and political circles this week after he bragged in the New York Times Magazine that he created an “echo chamber” in Washington, D.C. to sell the Obama administration’s foreign policy objectives.
Wednesday night’s message from Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, may add to the controversy. If nothing else, the message from the celebrated crafter of narratives was contradictory. While he seemed sheepish about the administration’s policy—almost apologetic—his statements indicate that if that if he had to do the entire process over he would change little about the administration’s response to the crisis.
Rhodes did not respond to a request for comment. But National Security Council spokesman Ned Price defended his colleague Friday in a statement to The Daily Beast: "We will not rebut point by point a secondhand account of an impromptu conversation that took place two days ago following an award ceremony honoring Ben. Ben has repeatedly made the point that the United States will continue to do everything we can, in concert with our international partners, to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, who have been brutalized at the hands of the Assad regime and, in other regions, ISIL.”
Price added that Rhodes "also explained, as he has done publicly many times before, why we have not pursued additional military action against Assad, including a no-fly zone; we see no military solution to the civil war. We all acknowledge the tremendous suffering of the Syrian people, and no one should be satisfied with the status quo."
Following the publication of this article, Price sent The Daily Beast another statement, saying that Rhodes “in no way indicted or distanced himself from our Syria policy. He has consistently explained U.S. policy toward the conflict, which is what he did in this case (as evidenced by the other quotes). What is true is that he lamented the level of suffering the Syrian people have endured. “
The Obama administration has previously hit back hard against criticism that it should have done more to end the conflict. Lawmakers who suggested that the administration should have moved more aggressively to arm Syrian rebels were told by President Obama himself that such criticism was “horseshit,” for example.
Ironically, Rhodes was angrily accosted by Syrian-American activists during an event held to praise him: the Muslim Public Affairs Council held a gala Wednesday evening, and he was among the honorees. In introducing the honoree, MPAC D.C. Director Hoda Hawa praised him for speaking up on behalf of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, confronting anti-Muslim rhetoric—but made no mention of Syria.
During a lull in the program for dinner, a handful of Syrian-American activists approached Rhodes, criticizing him for the administration’s decision against both setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and taking military action against the Assad regime.
“I told him I’m disgusted with his policy and that he doesn’t care about Syrian lives,” Rahmani told The Daily Beast.
“I said that we have no hope he’ll change his mind but we are glad he only has a few months left in office and that I pray he gets a conscience to act,” Hossino added. “I asked him how many more Syrians have to die.”
Rhodes dismissed their criticism on the no-fly zone concept, which Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has diverged from the Obama administration in calling for. Rhodes told the activists, “I wish it was that easy… we continue to examine all options,” arguing that the same number of Syrians would have died in any case because even if barrel bombs were halted, conventional weapons would have been used. Ultimately, Rhodes said the administration didn't find any military scenario where the U.S. could reduce the number of casualties.
At least 18,866 civilians have been killed in Assad regime air attacks, according to a New York Times report in September. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated in February that close to 20,000 barrel bombs have been dropped by government helicopters, killing more than 8,100 civilians, including more than 2,300 children.
Rhodes told the Syrian-American activists that he was pushing hard internally for more action on Syria. Simultaneously, he argued that any intervention would be costly because it would require the United States to destroy Assad’s air defenses, which could complicate the conflict further.
“We know the U.S. can’t end the conflict and we understand that it’s complicated, but the U.S. could at least reduce the violence inside Syria by stopping the barrel bombs, that would help the Syrian civil society to focus on peace-building and free the moderate opposition to fight ISIS,” Al-Assil told The Daily Beast.
The cost of the war have been enormous: Millions of refugees have fled the violence, causing an unprecedented European immigration crisis. The death toll in Syria reached nearly half a million people in February, The New York Times reported: at least 470,000 people had perished in the conflict.
Updated: 3:45pm to add statement from National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.