White House aide says Assad is ‘losing control of Syria’

Olivier Knox

The White House said Wednesday that the latest deadly violence in Syria—notably a suicide bomb attack that killed the country's defense minister, as well as increased fighting in Damascus—showed that President Bashar Assad was losing his once iron grip on the country.

"It's clear that the Assad regime is losing control of Syria," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. "With the Assad regime losing control, it's time for the Syrian people and the international community to focus on what comes next."

The bombing prompted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to warn that the violence in Syria is "rapidly spinning out of control" and that a political solution is urgently needed.

The message from Vietor is not radically different from the White House's message over the past few months: Assad's ouster is a matter of time, and the world must unite to pave the way for a political transition. But events on the ground lent it greater urgency.

"We are working urgently with our international partners to push for a political transition in Syria," Vietor said in an emailed statement, noting talks between Washington's international partners and Syria's opposition. "The sooner this transition happens, the greater the chance we have of averting a lengthy and bloody sectarian civil war and the better we'll be able to help Syrians manage a stable transition to democracy." The United States has worked with partners in the region to try to unite countries that oppose Assad's bloody 16-month crackdown on opposition to his rule. But Russia and China have blocked efforts at the U.N. Security Council to embrace a plan of action. And Republican critics of President Barack Obama—notably Sen. John McCain—have called for a harder line, and even for Washington to arm the rebels. The administration has said that it is providing communications and other aid short of weapons, and warned that arming the insurgency would only escalate the violence and risk seeing lethal assistance fall into the wrong hands. But Obama aides have acknowledged deep frustration, and even anger, with the role Moscow and Beijing have played.

Vietor's comments came as various news media reported that a suicide bomber killed Defense Minister General Daoud Rajha, Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and General Hassan Turkmani, the head of the regime's crisis cell.

"There is real momentum against Assad, with increasing defections, and a strengthened and more united opposition that is operating across the country," Vietor said in the emailed statement. "Many formerly pro-regime Syrians view Assad as the problem, not the solution, and the regime's financial struggle continues." His statement did not criticize the suicide bombing, a tactic the White House typically labels terrorism.

"We continue to work closely with the Syrian opposition to ensure that a transition guarantees fundamental rights as well as those of minorities. This is a critical element of any transition and is a priority for the United States," the spokesman said. "In the meantime, we continue to squeeze the regime financially. U.S. and international sanctions have had a significant effect on Assad's reserves, and are making it difficult for this regime to finance its brutality."